Malaysian malls and cultural imperialism

Azly Rahman

Hari Raya Aidil Fitri is coming up. Our malls are gearing up for those mega sales. Let us talk about what ‘shopping’ means these days.

Let me share my views on the act of shopping and the proliferation of malls in Malaysia – these two ideas as they relate to the notion of cultural imperialism. Imperialism, according to Vladimir Lenin in his famous essay, is the highest stage of capitalism. In the context of this essay, it is a step higher than that and a level deeper than just “consuming goods made for mass consumption”.

‘Cultural imperialism’ is a state of beingness in which the culture of the dominant has advanced to a stage of colonisation of the less powerful cultures, with the aid of technological power that fueled the style of colonisation. ‘Imperialism’ means the stage of advanced capitalist expansion that enabled the form of domination.

Cultural imperialism, by nature is a more powerful consequence of colonisation than say, for example forced occupation or colonisation because it utilises a clever and systematic form of subjugation. Cultural imperialism works more effectively, subtly, and silently when it creates a sense of euphoria, elation, and excitement in the mind, body, and consciousness of those imprisoned by the desire to shop till they drop. The mall provides the haven for this form of sophisticated imperialism.

How it works

Let us look at how cultural imperialism works with an illustration of the ‘malling’ of Malaysia. Imagine the mall as a place of fantasy and utopia that actually stockpile and market the artifacts of cultural imperialism. In writing this essay I draw inspiration from observing how people of varying classes and modern caste system ‘shop’.

What else is a ‘mall’? It is an enclosure of a shopping experience nicely built to attract people to consume the products they often do not actually need. The malls, especially in Kuala Lumpur, are a direct adaptation of the Western mall, architectured with post-modern stylistics, and sells products produced and/or marketed by multinational corporations from both the Western and the Eastern world. Frederic Jameson, an American cultural theorist writes about Le Corbusier's ‘internationalist’ design; architecture of urbanism that influence the design of malls as a world of escapism.

In Kuala Lumpur, as in New York City, there is now a place called (Berjaya) Times Square; a place surrounded by some of the biggest malls in Southeast Asia. Their names do not reflect the reality of the local traditions: Subang Parade, MegaMall, The Mall, Lot 10, Bukit Bintang Plaza, AmCorp Mall, Cheras Leisure Mall, Great Eastern Mall, 101 Mall, The Street Mall, and Mid- Valley Mega-Mall.

Who owns these malls and who benefits from the creation and sustenance of culture industry that transforms virtually all industries of the body, borrowing Walter Benjamin, into artistic production in an age of globalised mechanical reproduction? The Malaysian malls provide an exciting enclosure for the Malaysian shopping experience since the tropical heat of Malaysia (almost a daily average of 90 degrees Celsius) drives in consumers.

Malls have transformed the landscape of Malaysia since perhaps the beginning of the 1980s when the American and Japanese businesses began to dominate the economy. Traditional Malay stores that sell goods produced by family-run cottage industries had to give way to the malls that brought a new meaning to the concept of buying and consuming.

The traditional Malay ‘bazaar’ or pasar, where customers could bargain and the products were cheap, gave way to modern malls that sell not only products but also transmit values and transform the meaning of consumption. Shopping at these malls often require the consumers to possess credit cards. Classes of people have different classes of cards and credit limits. The idea of cultural imperialism is clear: Malaysians are cleverly socialised into becoming good modern consumers that buy products made to identify them with varying classes and social status. Hence the upper class Malaysian will buy Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Ferragamo, and those of the lower class will buy Padang Besar/Golok-made imitations of these products.

Sometimes one can’t tell the difference, exemplifying the expertise of the Thais. If I wear an imitation Tommy Hilfiger tie and imitation Santoni shoes, people will not question the authenticity of what I am wearing, as compared to say, the electronic factory worker who wears authentic branded clothing bought with a year’s savings. This is the power of brand-name perception that has and continues to shape our consciousness.

The mall is then like an education institution that cleverly and ‘common-sensically’ socialises the buyer into a utopia of consumerism under the one-roof of a fantasy-like environment/paradise of shopping quite different from the Malaysian reality outside – especially in the slumps of Kuala Lumpur or Johor Bahru. Herein lies the imperialising power of the Western (American and European) and Eastern (Japanese and Korean) business interests that structure and define the culture of mass consumption, so that to be a modern Malaysian means one must consume and be consumed by the products of the culture industry.

Ideology of mass consumption

The malls are like cultural installations that attempt to install the ideology of mass consumption. In Malaysia, the transformation is now clear; along Bintang Walk, for example, one can feel like walking down New York City with the signs and symbols of Western and Eastern capitalist interests dominating and inscribing the landscape. One can see McDonalds, Starbucks, Hard Rock Café, Marriott Hotel, Tower Records, Holiday Inn, and hundreds other signs, symbols, and representations of global capitalism sprawled in-between major malls such as KLCC Suria, and Mid-Valley Mega-Mall.

These cultural-industrial complexes and the hundreds of billboards that sell products of the cultural industry are evidence of the way foreign cultures imperialise. The malls of Malaysia provide an outlet for Malaysians who are “depressed” or live a stressful life to be happier and tranquilised by the pleasant shopping experience and environment (only to be even more depressed and saddened later for overspending and having to face their spouses’ wrath).

For urban Malaysians living in the capital city, going to the mall has become a concept as natural as going to a McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Japanese karaoke bar, or for teh tarik. Schoolchildren also play truant to chill out at the malls.

In the United States, the children of the multi-cultural poor shop for brand name clothing; a practice that perhaps help elevates the self-esteem of the children who predominantly grow up without a father figure. Single parents who work two or sometimes three jobs feel that they need to raise their children that way to motivate the latter to behave in school.

Class, status and culture

We are what we consume based on the mode of production we engage in, and based on the ever-changing notions of class status, and culture we have designed. The closer one is to the power-keg of the means of production or the richer one is, the more expensive the brand name that one and family members wear. Branding oneself becomes a necessity in this corporatist nation state that is now thriving on brand names such as Islam Hadhari, Bio-tech Malaysia, and 1Malaysia. Everything now is about branding and pegging it to the meaninglesness of the term world-classism.

Society is now reproducing itself into classes and caste systems that require malls to provide those very brands and signs and symbols in order for the classes of people – from the rulers to the modern indentured slaves – to identify themselves in order to feel a deep sense of belonging. Malaysian malls – those warehouse of brand name goods produced cheaply by impoverished children of the Third and Fourth World – help define the symbols and signification of those status symbols.

They provide the post-modern cultural artifacts that define what the poor and the rich would wear. We have enculturalised the modern concept of the mall successfully so that it will become a necessary wardrobe for the varying classes of people we have produced historical-materialistically. Culture, in the case of the ‘malling’ of Malaysia, is also imperialism. Our modern and post-modern shopping malls house the culture of imperialism.

Happy shopping for the holidays.

While the opinion in the article is mine,
the comments are yours;
present them rationally and ethically.