Seminar: Betrayal, Sacred Landscapes, and Stories of Justice Among Tamils in Malaysia



About the Seminar

Malaysia’s multiethnic ideology is premised upon an ideal of hospitality that simultaneously announces its own impossibility through the marking of legal ethno-nationalist rights and privileges. The performativity of the Law has been increasingly revealed to Malaysian Tamils through a series of recent events that have left them questioning the civility of their country. Specifically, the demolitions of temples and the acquisitions of land by the State, forced conversions, and the dispossession of Tamil plantation workers have precipitated doubts. I argue that the force of law within the ethno-nationalist state is haunted by a fragmentation of memory and experience among Tamils. This is wrought by a sense of “betrayal” by the State upon an increasingly sacralized landscape. Among Tamil Hindus, notions of divine justice have become fused with possessive and sometimes violent imaginaries. Tamil notions of divine justice are revealed to be a form of compensation, albeit one grounded in a growing victim’s narrative. Through my interlocutors and collaborators, I have come to critique the Law, as mutually understood through the ethnographic encounter. At the same time, I have strategically utilized empathy in the face of great hospitality, whilst recoiling, at times, from the implications that accompany calls of justice. I conclude with a meditation upon the ethics of critique by suggesting the ethnographic betrayal is both painful and necessary.

About the Speaker

Andrew Willford is Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. Professor Willford’s work characteristically explores psychological aspects of selfhood, identity, and subjectivity within a matrix of power and statecraft. His previous research has focused upon Tamil displacement, revivalism, and identity politics in Malaysia and India. A recent book, Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia’s Plantations (University of Hawaii Press/Singapore University Press, 2014) examines how Tamil plantation communities face the uncertainties of retrenchment and relocation in Malaysia. Other books include: Cage of Freedom: Tamil Identity and the Ethnic Fetish in Malaysia (University of Michigan Press, 2006; Singapore University Press, 2006), Spirited Politics: Religion and Public Life in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Andrew Willford and Kenneth George, eds. (Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University, 2005); and Clio/Anthropos: Exploring the Boundaries between History and Anthropology, Andrew Willford and Eric Tagliacozzo, eds. (Stanford University Press, 2009).


For registration, please fill in this form and email to by 1 June 2016.


Jun 02 2016


3:30 pm - 5:00 pm


ISEAS Seminar Room 2