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Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia’s Plantations

ANDREW C. WILLFORD is an associate professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. He is also the author of Cage of Freedom: Tamil Identity and the Ethnic Fetish in Malaysia.

NUS Press (First Printing, 2014)
318 pages including Bibliography and Index


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Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia’s Plantations 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community-based model of rubber plantation production introduced by British and French companies in colonial Malaya has been replaced by a model based upon migrant labor, mechanization, and a gradual contraction of the plantation economy.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.

This research was conducted in collaboration with and through the aid of Dr. S. Nagarajan. “Naga” was with the author for almost all the encounters described in this book. Thus the author uses the term “we” throughout to describe various encounters, observations, and events.

On this point, and distinct from Naga’s work-though there are important things to say about political economy and history or socioeconomic conditions-this is an ethnographic and interpretive account. The author is not trying to present an objective account of Tamil social or economic reality. Rather the aim here is to present, to the best of his ability, Malaysian Tamil understandings of their predicament. This does not mean that these understandings are uniform or fully explicable within a cultural logic or 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 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.

In terms of a method for Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia’s Plantations, Naga and the author travelled to numerous plantations throughout Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Putrajaya, and Kuala Lumpur. They ended up focusing on Selangor, but even then there were numerous estates facing different stages of displacement and eviction. They consciously decided that it would be useful, too, to compare outcomes for displaced estate workers living relatively closer and farther from alternative employment.

In addition to estates, they 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. They also visited newly transplanted residents in low-cost flats in several sites. In all the sites they visited, rather than conducting formal tape-recorded interviews, they tried to establish a more informal conversational rapport with residents. Sometimes they had referrals from lawyers, activists, and kin, which made their entry that much easier in the sometimes suspicious estate or squatter communities.

Weight0.494 kg
Dimensions22.9 × 15.2 × 2 cm




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