Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia

Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia

Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia

Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia


Why are Malay women workers periodically seized by spirit possession on the shopfloors of modern factories? In this book, Aihwa Ong captures the disruptions, conflicts, and ambivalences in the lives of Malay women and their families as they make the transition from peasant society to industrial production.

To discover the meaning that the market economy and wage labor hold for Malay peasants, Ong conducted anthropological field work in an agricultural district in Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia, which is undergoing rapid proletarianization. Weaving together history, ethnography, and quantitative analysis, she addresses many questions pertaining to peasants and state policies. The book shows how the diverging roles of young men and women are increasingly channelled, by educational and labor market pressures, toward conformity with corporate culture and capitalist discipline.

A unique feature of this book is the portrayal of Malay women workers in Japanese factories, caught between their culture and the culture of capitalism. Ong argues that cultural values and practices both Islamic-Malay and foreign are reworked and reconstituted in the industrial hierarchy. Her vivid accounts of hysterical episodes, violent incidents, and women's self-perceptions provide insights into their attitudes toward capitalist relations.

By illuminating the encounter of Malay peasants with global industrial production, the book also throws light on the attitude of neophyte wage workers elsewhere in the Third World."


Writing this book is rather like opening Pandora's box: what kinds of spirits is one releasing? My inquiry into the meanings industrialization has for Malaysian society necessarily elicits the social significance of neophyte factory women not only for peasants but also for managers of transnational companies, government officials, Islamic zealots, school teachers, village children, and the wider society. Ethnographic knowledge builds upon a negotiated reality between the anthropologist and informants, and my claim to this alongside other possible interpretations rests on the inclusion of many voices seldom heard in the cacophony of academic and political exchanges. By documenting changes in rural society and weaving a multistranded, multilingual social reality into the account, this text discloses diverse reactions to an emerging Malay female proletariat, as well as their own eloquent descriptions of the disruptions and ambivalences of cultural change. Thus, while my interpretation may refract like a multifaceted lens, it preserves a dialectical tension vis-à-vis various particularistic views expressed about changing Malay society. in this account, the hantu (evil spirit), hovering over the passage of young Malay women into industrial modernity, becomes "an image which mediates the conflict between [non]capitalist and capitalist modes of objectifying the human condition" (Taussig 1980: xii).

The introduction of industrial capitalist discipline into Malay society involves both resistance and assent to change in work patterns, consumption, group identity, self-consciousness, and ultimately, a greater . . .

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