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Seminar on “‘Kebun’ Culture and the Malaysian Rural”

MALAYSIA STUDIES PROGRAMME
Urbanization, Consumption and Culture Seminar Series

Tuesday, 1 October 2019 – The ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a seminar on socio-economic dynamics in rural Malaysia.  Dr Eric Thompson, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the National University of Singapore, was the invited speaker. Dr Geoffrey Pakiam moderated the seminar. Dr Thompson presented recent ethnographic findings from three study sites in rural Malaysia.

Dr Eric Thompson (right), Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the National University of Singapore, elaborating on the Malay-language term “kebun”. Dr Geoffrey Pakiam (left) moderated the seminar. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Thompson started his seminar by elaborating on the Malay-language term kebun, which can be rendered in English as orchard. Kebun typically refers to smallholdings on which fruit and rubber trees are cultivated. Dr Thompson contended that kebun may be replacing kampong as a new rural symbol and operational space in Malaysian imaginaries. He explained that unlike kampongs where collective surveillance is pervasive, kebun owners of urban origin are relatively free from social obligations. Better-off owners also see kebun as part of their retirement plan. To substantiate his argument, he gave three examples of kebun, differentiated by the social-economic backgrounds of their owners. The first example was owned and operated, and resided on by a working-class Malay who was using it to make ends meet. The second example, a wealthy Kuala Lumpur-based ex-CEO’s kebun, operated as a form of recreation, a weekend retreat for relatives and friends. Dr Thompson’s final example of a kebun looked at one owned by a middle-class Malay from government service. In this case, the kebun owner was struggling to reconcile the demands of his urban job and rural kebun, and was likely to sell off his kebun. Class differences between owners were leading to different socio-economic outcomes and treatments of rural land.

In the question and answer session, one participant asked whether the trend of urban Malaysians showing more interest in kebun could stem from their desire to return to the rural environment where they grew up. Dr Thompson acknowledged that some owners were raised in rural communities before migrating to cities, but emphasized that their kebun were now geographically far from their places of origin. Other questions pertained to the methodology of Dr Thompson’s research, the decreasing lure of urban migration for rural Malays, and role of migrant labour. The seminar drew close to 30 attendees from academia, the civil service, the diplomatic corps, and the public.  

Some of the audience in the seminar. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)