Skip to content

UPDATE as of August: Information, Research and Trends: the Malaysian Case

August 12, 2015

Now that I have been back 10 months, and worked at a private institution of higher learning where I am exposed to all that is trending among the youths (while also witnessing cultural trends that have become the ‘newer’ research interests of the Malaysian humanistic and social science academe), my observation remains unchanged. Certainly, the strength of pop-cultural imports from Asia have created new competition in the market place of product placements and celebrity icons. Since I was teaching media, one of my challenges had been trying to keep up with seemingly ‘novel’ consumer trends in social media (that include the monetization and commercialization of certain accounts from sponsored blogs to Instagram), in the not-that-new-but-still-new forms of broadcast media such as Youtube (and probably, in the not too distant future, Google Hangout and Periscope, if that is not already happening now) that changes the meaning of ‘reality tv’ and ‘celebrity,’ and trying to understand the sort of media-cultural addictions that afflict not only youngsters, but also the middle-aged and retirees in this age of information overload that makes slow-thinking difficult. I have experimented on myself by consuming a cross-section of some of these platforms and content found online and on satellite TV;  they leave a disturbing sense of alienation that comes from the feeling that one has spent hours consuming ‘information emptied of significance,’ thus bringing new meaning to the work ‘bingeing’ and ‘escapism.’ The relief of switching to a research only position is delectable.  It also makes me realize that I will never be very much of a good day-to-day pop-cultural studies researcher; my relationship to pop-cultural developments is even more extreme than that of a bulimic to food – long periods of starvation followed by bingeing where I try to make sense of all the things I had missed, or was never interested in before. But hey, there are others who are passionate about prodding into socio-economic and consumer-media-and-the-arts-cultural trends consistently and for the longer term, so I may as well just read and ‘borrow’ their observations should the need arises. 🙂 Of course, looking up such stuff is also an exercise in procrastination for me.


Among the things I have been grappling with, upon my return to Malaysia, is in making sense of all the changes that had taken place in my more than two-years of extended absence (as I had not returned since the mid-summer of 2012). However, much of my observations could only be made from my hometown in Perak, as I had not had time to go anywhere much (other than a day-trip to KL with my family). But, thanks to the combination of Astro satellite TV (which became my best friend for the first time since the turn of the century), my rather limited internet access, and newspapers passed on by others (I refrain from buying local magazines for the time being), and also in talking with random people around, I was able to obtain a cultural snapshot of all that had been happening in my absence. It also allows me to see how the exceptionalism of North America has blinded those of us living in it to the capital ascendancy of Asia (though it is up to the reader to decide on what counts as ‘ascendancy’); glimpses of that could be observed while I was in Europe while the American media is almost blind to much that takes place in Asia. A summary of my observations can be seen here, though you would have to read it in Malay or plug it onto Google Translate.

One thing about Asia, and Malaysia in particular, is the lack of any clearinghouse of information (though that is changing, albeit extremely slowly, as the newer generation are beginning to put more things onto the Internet) that you can go to for catching up on trends, regardless of your field of interest. As someone who had years (such as almost 15 years) of experience in the research industry (both in the academics and beyond) in Malaysia and elsewhere, I can attest to how the concept of the archive is not within the purview of Malaysia, though as I said, that is changing with the more digitally literate generation coming to fore. China, on the other hand, is trying to make up for its cultural misdeeds, so to speak, by going full-force to document every area of knowledge, historical and current, that it could get its hands on (even if the country has not changed too much in its stance with regard to informational democracy or the rights of its citizens). Here, it is still very much dependent on the grapevine, your contacts, and being part of an insider information group – the oral tradition of handing down information still operates through much of the knowledge economy of Malaysia, and probably much of other South East Asian countries (even if Singapore is becoming more sophisticated in its archival and informational database practices).  Therefore, much of the information you would want to collect has to come through a keen sense of observational practice, informational interviews, and random conversations with members of communities. Further, much of the published information of the world are locked up in very expensive databases monopolized by wealthy publishing conglomerates, and not always available even to universities and other bigger research organizations in the country, let alone to an independent or freelance researcher.

However, to have more than a partial view of Malaysia requires one to have a good grasp of the different languages available, which is also what makes doing research in Malaysia both exciting and challenging. One might refer to only resources in languages you are most comfortable with, but that would mean that your knowledge is always partial. In fact, even knowing all languages does not guarantee full access unless one can consider that which is not said. Let’s consider the media for instance: due to stringent control through the Printing and Publications Act, and also Sedition Act, among others, much of media published in English and Malay could afford you only the blandest view of politics. On the other hand, the Chinese newspapers, that are illegible to the majority group of Malaysia, could get away with more and therefore, are able to publish political news sanctioned from most other newspapers. That had been the case until the advent of alternative presses, but even then, one will still get different perspectives. Of course, one would always have to differentiate sensationalism from information, but the history of newspapers in Malaysia, and the multiplicity of languages in which its newspapers come in, is a subject for much interesting research, as one can find in the unpublished master and PhD theses of the universities (unfortunately, I don’t think the idea of a digital thesis has made its ways here yet). That said, in the field I am interested in exploring further, which is intellectual history in relation to the history of science, being able to communicate with more members of the community would assure one the ability to access materials not available in every language, while also building hitherto unobserved connections. This is at least what I am trying to do to understand, for example, the history of alternative medical treatments and therapies in Malaysia that are derived from various cultures and even from centuries old traditions that are beyond the shores of the country.

As far as trends of consumption, I see not much change in that area. Having recently emerged out of the university system (though I might be returning to one soon again) for so long, it still comes as a shock (even if not a surprise), to see how much money that members of the public pay to attend particular talks and seminars, except for political talks, obviously. Some major universities in the country organize talks, but given the fact of the bigger public universities are disproportionately located in one state (Selangor), and that most private universities and colleges are more about providing ‘job and vocational training’ rather than intellectual advancement, there is not a whole lot of edifying forum for public to engage with ideas. Most of the expensive talks and seminars are related to capital gain (targeted at, corporations, business professionals, or potential customers) and are more about marketing a particular service or product. For certain, there there is unabashed commercialism, that the most interesting public spaces are the shopping malls, even in smaller towns such as my hometown. In fact, for the smaller towns, the taste of cosmopolitanism can only be had at shopping malls; not even at libraries, bookstores or cultural places such as museums and galleries. About almost a decade ago, I had reviewed a book about the importance of studying shopping malls as a sociological critique in Singapore.

Then, there is the entertainment industry. I do not claim to ever have been an acute observer of any forms of pop-culture (social media has been my savior in finding out things, as is the monetized version of Youtube), though my short stint in market research some months prior to commencing my PhD studies opened up my eyes to the importance of cultural critique in all areas of consumer research. The same holds true for understanding the rise and fall of particular pop cultures, such as the ones in Asia. As of now, I was informed that K-pop is all the riot (that has impacted some members of my extended family as well). However, with the rise of technicolor and sharp images afforded by the HD technology and an increase in the deployment of animated special effects in cinematography (often to offset a not very great script or plot) in the Chinese movie industry, and of course, the increasing robustness of entertainment in, once again, China, we see the advent of C-dramas, especially costumed period dramas, into the overseas market, most particularly in South East Asia. With a few exceptions, it appears that most of the C-dramas that made it into the general channels of the television, such as the Malaysian satellite TV Astro, are kinds that support the status quo rather than ruffle feathers. The same can be said about the local (largely Malay) channels (though I have not spent time looking into the channels catered to Indian-dialect speakers) .That stands in contradistinction to some, though not all, of the American TV dramas that are accessible through the regular behemoths (Fox, HBO etc). There is much that can be said about the onslaught of global celebrity cultures upon the average consumer of entertainment, but I will let scholars or critiques who study such phenomena do the honors instead.

I have only been around for a month, but am looking forward to seeing what new things will I discover, and where my intellectual and research interests will be able to find its niche. At this time, on top of my regular ‘work,’ I am also spending time reading up on Malaysiana and other Asian materials that I had no time to explore while doing the PhD. For sure, understanding cultural implications and affectivity are important to understanding the movement of trends from a qualitative perspective. I welcome further suggestions and recommendations by anyone reading this.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2014 4:03 am

    Fascinating perspective. This makes me wonder what’s going in the Philippines–from my limited impressions, there is a good combination of parallels and contrasts with Malaysia (e.g. the prevalence and typical use of English).

    I follow Japanese news and social media as part of my language learning–and it really is a blind spot for most Western audiences. Even otherwise globally focused social media and discussion sites seem to consider it only sparingly.

    Anyhow, I like how you describe K-Pop as having _impacted_ your family members. 🙂

  2. CLee permalink*
    November 18, 2014 2:12 pm

    It is definitely interesting to understand why the K-popculture trend has taken off in such a big way that provides unifying interest across different ethnic groups and the different countries of South East Asia (though probably more so in some countries than others). A friend, who is not a cultural theorists by any means, speculates that it must be the conjunction of both Eastern and Western cultures that add to the appeal (especially the struggle of that conjunction), in a way that you do not find so much in other East-Asian popculture, and then, drama plots that seem to appeal across a wide range of age groups even if most of the more popular artistes are in their 20s and 30s. Of course, we add to that, the concept of ‘idol’ that is the Asian entertainment business model of exploiting an artiste’s popularity to the max through genre crossovers, something that we don’t see as much in Europe and the US. I am sure there is more to this than what I am stating here, since this is not my area of research, but this is my more superficial observation.

    I suspect, though cannot yet confirm, that K-dramas viewership may soon exceed that of other foreign dramas in Malaysia. If you were to watch a music video from any of the boys and girls band, they appear almost similar to what you would see on American MTV. But I expect certain niche areas of the culture to infiltrate the US in the same manner Japanese anime has. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: