DEC 11 — Having already made the statement, on a separate occasion, that I will not get involved in public discussions on Malaysian political economy, a recent set of events sucked me in, albeit slightly, and much against my will. It was about boycotts or sanctions against certain businesses and enterprises and, given the declaration above, I am always, over and again, a guest in this country, and will do nothing to cause dissent or disruption.

Anyway, besides it being simply offensive to single out any racial or ethnic group for criticism, there is a great danger in spreading self-righteous bile in an already fractious society because of a dogmatism that has numinous protection. I hope that makes sense. There really is no need to repeat all that. I have a love for Malaysia that runs deep in my family heritage. Saya berbangsa Melayu dari Cape Town. But that’s a story for another time.

Nonetheless, reference was made to the role of economic sanctions against apartheid, something about which I actually have a lot of intimate knowledge. That was the being-sucked-in part. Enough about that. Because my training was in global political economy and long run shifts in global capitalism, I will focus on a single issue; the way that the culture of global capitalist consumer culture has been normalised. I will drop the word “capitalism” because it tends to turn people off.

Starbucks is more than just coffee


Let me start with the topic that started it all: To boycott Starbucks or not to boycott Starbucks. I should emphasise that I don’t come out on either side in this essay. What I will say is that if your day revolves around one of the bewildering varieties of drinks they sell, it says more about the effectiveness of marketing, and the normalisation of consumer culture that it does about their coffee and its attendant culture. I have had better coffee and a much more pleasant (and unpretentious) experience at Kopi Pintu Belakang in PJ than at any Starbucks I have visited from Taipei to Buenos Aires. Besides anything else, Kopi Pintu Belakang is grounded in a local community (I am avoiding the word “autochthonous”; it came to mind, but it may not be quite appropriate.)

Starbucks, on the other hand, sells a “lifestyle,” and an “experience”. Its brands and values represent a culture. People no longer go for coffee; they go to Starbucks. The fall into the trap set by the company’s chief executive officer, Harold Schultz, who once explained: “the people who line up for Starbucks... aren’t there just for the coffee; it’s the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get”. I have some insights into the way Starbucks treat their staff, but as mentioned above, I will steer clear of any controversy, suffice to say that there are jobs that require from women, in particular) an enormous amount of emotional labour (I did mention that I was trained in a cognate field), where people, like airline cabin crew are expected to smile – All. The. Time.

The normalisation of consumer culture


In football there is a tactic of switching play. (North London Forever) So, switching play, and still advancing the discussion, the things that Starbucks sell are available in almost every one of its stores around the world, mutatis mutandis. There was a time, more than two decades ago, when Starbucks sold or served “world music” as part of its marketing. They tried to normalise Putumayo (world music), though purely to attract customers in a form of mild cultural appropriation. I say “mild” because culture – art, music, literature can and should be spread and shared around the world – but for Starbucks it was just another marketing ploy. In other words, I don’t have a problem with wayang kulit traveling from, say, Kelantan, to New York City, where it’s fetishized, exoticized and sold as a curiosity.

Just parenthetically, when I taught at the University of South Carolina between 2005 and 2010, a student suggested that (as a Malay from Africa), I had a very “exotic” background; I replied by saying that (to me, at least) Iowa or Oklahoma were exotic places. To Kedahans there is nothing exotic about Pokok Sena, but Times Square in New York City may well be....

Normalisation of (mainly western) consumer culture has become inexorably pervasive. I recently went to a mall in Cape Town wearing a Harimau Malaya football shirt. It attracted more attention than I could have imagined. It was “abnormal”. Before I left the mall, I spent about 15 minutes just looking around, and tried to count or at least take not of how “normal” it was to wear LA Lakers, New York Jets or Toronto Raptors shirts and shorts.

How did it all start? Well, we may have to go back a long time, back to when the west extended their power and influence, and their cultures on Asians, and it all has been reproduced and normalised in places like Hong Kong and Singapore. Much later, by the end of the last century, globalisation - the functional integration of economies into a whole and the transnational span of financial institutions across the globe - was accompanied by cultural exchange. English became the language of globalisation, which was imbricated, as it were, with western music. Just by the way, I have a friend in Kuala Lumpur who would sell his only son for a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen perform, and one of the first things I will do when I step off the plane at KLIA in January is seek out a performance by Wobbebong — an exceptionally talented and courageous duo of young women whom, I’ll bet, very few among us had ever heard of. The only problem I have with Wobbebong is that I sing their song, Kereta Terbang in the shower – and don’t know the meaning of the words!

But seriously, take a walk into any mall, Sunway Putra, Bangsar Village or MidValley Megamall, and notice the way that consumer products have been normalised. I am not saying we should all rush out to buy baju melayu — though I am a bit of a freak walking around my kampung in Cape Town wearing a sarong - as part of ethno-nationalist pride. The point I have struggled to make is that we have to at least be aware of how the world in all its manifestations has been commodified, exoticized, bought and sold, and how it has all been normalised. A cup of coffee from Starbucks is not just coffee; besides the fact that without the fripperies on the shelves, the coffee is really mediocre, and the place is dressed to attract your attention, and your hard-eared ringgit.

* Ismail Lagardien is an essayist who has worked on and off got Malaysian newspapers since the 1980s, and until earlier this year he was a visiting Professor at Multi-Media University in Cuberjaya. He returns to Malaysia in January to work on a book about the country.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.