Sunday, January 30, 2011

Malaysian rural rhetoric

After living in a rural village in Malaysia for 7 months, one thing was clear: I knew more about my small, adopted town, Matang, than most Malaysians did. While visiting the country's capital, Kuala Lumpur, a seven-hour bus ride from Matang, I would often see faces of sheer horror when I told the more metropolitan Malaysians where I was living. "How do you handle it?" "They are so uneducated there! So conservative!" "They are so poor, you must be so bored!" And, of course, I was always reminded that Matang was located in Hulu Terengganu, a province whose namesake meant something along the lines of "backwater," for a reason.

As you might expect, I resented this negativity. Yes, Matang was rural and poor, and much more conservative than the rest of the country, but people were educated and just as capable as their fellow Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur. It bothered me that the city-dwellers thought of Matang as "uncivilized," and certainly spoke about their compatriots as "others" they could not understand.

I was reminded of these perceptions recently in an article in The Star, Malaysia's most widely-read English publication. In this story from January 25, 2011, the author begins by describing how a child from a Penan settlement in rural Sarawak accidentally kicked over a kerosene lamp in his sleep, burning down his longhouse and those of 300 other villagers. The author then continues to describe the settlement's health and environmental problems. Yet, the story is not about development or addressing social and economic disparities, but rather it is about relief, and largely focuses on how Mercy Malaysia, a Kuala Lumpur-based humanitarian organization, has come to the settlement's rescue to rebuild and provide volunteer medical care.

While it is extremely admirable that there are aid organizations willing to travel to remote places to help out in what are, to be sure, very dire situations, the rhetoric in the article was reminiscent of my experiences with the Malaysian rural-urban divide. It characterized the rural residents as passive, helpless, "others," describing "their shy demeanors" and "curious stares," and how they anxiously pleaded, "will you come back for us?"

Of course, I have never been to this community, and it does appear to be an entirely different level of rural than where I lived, but I have a hard time imagining that the Penan residents are such passive, starry-eyed fans of their non-rural counterparts. It seems that when characterizing "the rural," the tendency is either to idealize residents as just simple, grateful, happy people, or to discount them as uneducated and unintelligent.

Either way, the effect is the same. Essentializing rural people and places creates a perception of rural areas as lower, less-important communities. For impoverished rural communities, this essentialization leads to the belief that they will, from time-to-time, need rescuing, but nothing more. For impoverished communities in the developing world, this rhetoric will have to change if social and economic inequalities are to be effectively addressed.


D'Arcy said...

I too am concerned with the patronizing rhetoric frequently associated or propagated by aid organizations such as Mercy Malaysia. This rhetoric is not reserved for rural subjects, though it is particularly problematic in the case illustrated here. The fact is, drama sells aid and these organizations are pressed to couch their work in terms that illicit sympathy from potential donors. They have a tendency to depict aid recipients as passive, needy victims rather than active agents capable of defining their own social and political needs. I find some of the policy suggestions propagated by our class readings boarder on making the same mistake. They proscribe solutions without seeming to ask the rural stakeholders for suggestions, effectively causing rural people to appear unable to direct or demand attention to local concerns.
But, the NGO's like Mercy Malaysia and the policy suggestions in our readings seek to empower rural people and can bring about positive change. In light of the potential to improve lives despite a shadow of paternalism, I often wonder where students of rural life and aid providers should draw the line rhetorically. Can aid agencies solicit funds without depicting stakeholders as victims?

N.P. said...

Just to use D'Arcy's comments - I think there is a fine line for aid organizations to solicit funds but also to implement those funds without using such essentialist language. Ultimately, I think people find it difficult to donate unless this victim/rural language is a part of the equation. Which perhaps speaks much to what we as society value when we are helping people (but that is another matter).

Considering the case in Haiti, much of the language used was to depict a country - despite its high population - of rural tendencies, and to use these tendencies to solicit funds. At the same time, however, on the ground the inability to provide for these individuals also seemed to center around its ruralism - or undeveloped state - not so much that aids workers were not receiving the proper supplies from organizations like the Red Cross.