Distraction Free Reading

Mobilizing Cemeteries, Representing Ancestors: The Infrastructure of Protest and the Anti-Petroleum Complex Movement in Pengerang, Malaysia

Resisting the “Rotterdam Port of the East”

In 2011, the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, and the CEO of the national oil company Petronas, Shamsul Azhar Abbas, announced the “Pengerang Integrated Petroleum Complex” (PIPC) project: a billion-dollar, state-led, mega refinery and petrochemical complex. The PIPC project promised to transform Pengerang, a small fishing village, into a world-class oil and gas hub that would fuel Malaysia’s economic growth for decades to come. It is the biggest of its kind in Southeast Asia and has negotiated a joint venture agreement with Saudi Arabia’s national oil giant Saudi Aramco as of 2017, guaranteeing a supply of crude oil to the PIPC for 20 years to produce petroleum and petrochemical products for growing Asian markets. Beneath the official “success story,” promoted by the Najib government and Petronas of how this “Rotterdam Port of the East”[1] would help Malaysia overtake Singapore as the leading oil and gas trading center of the Asia-Pacific region[2], the PIPC project has spawned a myriad of controversies and local resistances.

The PIPC’s first phase of construction required the relocation of seven villages and thousands of villagers in the region of Pengerang. This gave rise to a grassroots anti-PIPC movement in the swing state of Johor before the general election of 2013 – the tightest Malaysian election up to that point. Although the villagers had formed strategic alliances with opposition parties and environmental NGOs, they were not interested in or motivated by the discourses of “progressive politics,” such as land justice or environmental protection. Instead, they were most concerned with tomb relocation, which was perceived as pantang (taboo) by both local Malays and Chinese. Although both Malay and Chinese villagers were equally upset about tomb relocation, they did not have equal control or leverage over their cemetery infrastructures.

Informed by the recent infrastructural turn in political anthropology and science and technology studies that emphasize how the state and other forms of power are exercised or contested in/through built environments, I show how different ethno-religious landscapes and cemetery infrastructures form important material conditions through which different degrees of openness to dissent and repertoires of contention against the development could emerge. I also show how an ethnographic attention to material politics affords unique insights into ethnic politics in post-colonial, multi-cultural Malaysia, moving beyond the common-sense trope of ‘ethnicity is king’ which dominates the study of politics in Malaysia.

Bumiputera vs. Non-Bumiputera Infrastructures

The seven villages designated for relocation in the first phase of construction in Pengerang were all mixed-ethnicity villages, each with approximately 90% ethnic Malays and 10% ethnic Chinese. There were some modern infrastructures in these villages which were built and run by the state and shared by all villagers, such as a post office, a government clinic, and a national middle school that taught a nation-wide standardized curriculum in the national language of Malay. There were also other ethno-religiously specific infrastructures. The ethno-religious infrastructures of the Malays – such as Islamic religious schools, mosques or prayer rooms, and Malay cemeteries – were directly under the auspices and control of the state because Malays are constitutionally defined as bumiputera (sons of the soil, or the indigenous people of Malaysia)[3]. In contrast, the ethno-religious infrastructures of the Chinese – such as mother-tongue or Mandarin Chinese medium elementary schools, Buddhist or Taoist temples, and Chinese cemeteries – were funded and run by the local Chinese community rather than the state because the Chinese are constitutionally defined as non-bumiputera (non-indigenous).

The bumiputera status of the Malays is a product of colonial history. Special recognition was given to the Malays in the Malaysian Constitution as part of a political arrangement between Malay political elites and the British colonial government in exchange for the extension of citizenship to Chinese and Indians residing in British Malaya on the eve of independence in 1957. The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1971-1990[4] institutionalized this special status. The NEP consisted of a series of affirmative action policies favoring the economically disadvantaged bumiputera in public, educational, industrial, and commercial sectors. It was designed to address economic disparities between the Malays and Chinese which were seen by the ruling coalition as the cause of the ethnic riot of 1969 and a threat to national unity. The authority and legitimacy of Malay political elites was constituted through capturing the state and rendering it Malay-Islamic by allocating the most state resources to the Malay-Muslim majority. Excluded from this program, Chinese political elites constituted authority and established legitimacy by donating land and money to build and maintain ethno-religiously specific infrastructures – crucial sites for the production and reproduction of communal identity and solidarity. These “communal leaders” also served as resourceful and sophisticated intermediaries between the pro-bumiputera state and the non-bumiputera Chinese community, often used to request and obtain government permits or subsidies – which were often political bargaining chips or leverage and not provided by default – to build and run these communal infrastructures.

Here, we can see the co-constitution of ethnicity and infrastructure through both nationalist and communalist projects. The “Malay infrastructures”, which were directly under the auspices and control of the state, become “national”; whereas the “Chinese infrastructures”, which were regulated indirectly by the state via the mediation of communal elites, consequently enjoying some degree of relative autonomy from the state, become “communal”. This key distinction illuminates not only two ways of control but also two kinds of differently conditioned possibilities for resistance through infrastructure.

Two Materialities for Dissent and Contention

After the announcement of the PIPC master plan in 2011, the Sultan of Johor (the traditional Malay ruler), the of Bureau of Religious Affairs of Johor, and local ustaz (Islamic religious teachers) in Pengerang all universally supported the development and approved the tomb relocation procedures, declaring relocation to the new, government-compensated cemetery as halal or Islamically proper. This made any open dissent from the local Malay community extremely difficult to legitimize and sustain and an easy target for political intimidation and retaliation. Although the tomb relocation did not encounter much open contestation within the local Malay community, there were plenty of rumors of wild boars, considered haram (forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law), roaming and digging up bodies in the new, government-compensated cemetery. These rumors of wild boars, as well as stories of oil workers of Petronas kena hantu (possessed or disturbed by ghosts/spirits) while working at former Malay cemetery sites, were telling protests or “weapons of the weak” (Scott 1985).

In contrast, hua ren yi shan (華人義山) or the Chinese cemetery became a central locus of political struggle and performance within the local Chinese community during the anti-PIPC movement. It is important to note that the foregrounding of the Chinese cemeteries by the villagers-turned-activists was not only because of their cultural significance but also their strategic usefulness in resisting Chinese communal elites with ties to the pro-bumiputera state. This new, non-elite Chinese leadership emerged through delegitimizing the old, elite Chinese leadership as traitors to the community and sought to establish itself as the true representatives of and guardians for the ancestors and ghosts (i.e. the deceased without descendants). The local Chinese elites’ close relationship with the state and their reluctance to oppose the state plan of tomb relocation for fear of endangering that relationship were perceived as violating the “moral economy” of the villagers and as unfavorable, especially with new political opportunities opening up since the general election of 2013. Instead, the local Chinese non-elite villagers-turned-activists chose to form new alliances with opposition parties and environmental NGOs to enact a new, highly antagonistic and confrontational style of politics – which was a novel political development considering Pengerang had always been (and still is, as of 2020) a ruling coalition stronghold.

These villagers-turned-activists reconstituted the Chinese cemeteries as spaces of significance and contestation. They popularized invented traditions which imbued traditional communal events and practices with new, subversive meanings, such as appropriating the ghost month rituals (which were, up to that point, usually held and hosted by local elites) and rewriting the prayers to recruit the ancestors and ghosts and ensure the success of the anti-PIPC movement. They articulated integrative narratives which emphasized the Malaysian-ness rather than the Chinese-ness of the cemeteries, claiming that the ancestral remains buried in Malayan/Malaysian soil were even older than the formation of British Malaya and were the most tangible evidence of citizenship and testimony to belonging. Thus, in these articulations, the Chinese are not pendatang (outsiders or arrivers, a derogative term to refer to non-bumiputera Malaysians, especially ethnic Chinese and Indians) and should therefore have a say in deciding desirable national futures.

A landscape scene of cemetary on a small hill with a dozen or more headstones beneath a cloudy blue sky.

One of the five Chinese cemeteries designated for relocation in Pengerang in 2014. Photo Credit: Author

A group of several dozen people, half of them appearing to be students, all holding incense, with offerings of fruit and snacks placed on the ground before them.

Ghost month prayers, where a group is recruiting the ancestors and ghosts in order to ensure the success of the anti-PIPC movement. Photo Credit: Author’s informant.

These villagers-turned-activists also performed a 500-km ascetic walk to the Petronas’ headquarters at the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur — an emblem of Malaysia’s Islamic Modernity and national pride. They carried with them an incense burner, symbolizing that the ancestors and ghosts in Pengerang had followed along and walked with them to plead Petronas to act like a civilized and responsible company and not destroy any ethnic group’s cultural landscapes in the name of national development. Here, the materiality of cemeteries, the physicality of bodies, and post-human spirits become constitutive elements, or non-human “allies,” mobilized for the anti-PIPC movement and represented by the villagers-turned-activists.

A line of people wearing either purple or bright green shirts walking on the edge of a road.

The 500 kilometer ascetic walk to Kuala Lumpur in 2014. Photo Credit: Author’s Informant.

A man wearing a bright purple jacket faces the camera with a solemn look, while holding an incense stick, representing the ancestors.

Local non-elite villagers-turned-activists hold incense before the Petronas Twin Towers, representing the ancestors and ghosts. Photo Credit: Author’s Informant.

However, these efforts were countered by the state. Before the general election of 2013, the Najib government wielded its administrative powers to relocate most of the Malay infrastructures in Pengerang and utilized its media resources to propagandize stereotypical and racialized/classed images of the local Chinese villagers as rich and selfish chauvinists blocking national development, and their Malay counterparts as poor-yet-selfless patriots already sacrificing for the nation (i.e. accepting and enduring the inconveniences of relocation). Najib also openly accused the villagers-turned-activists of being manipulated by the opposition and accused the movement of being usurped by a “political agenda.” After the ruling coalition secured office once again at both the federal and state level in the general election of 2013, the Najib government reconsolidated its relationship with the local Chinese elites and deployed armed forces and the police to remove the Chinese cemeteries while claiming that his government had received “consent” from the local Chinese community. Nevertheless, many local Chinese villagers chose not to accept the free-of-charge relocation of their ancestral tombs to the new, government-compensated cemetery; choosing instead to relocate them elsewhere, at their own expense, as a final protest against the state and a salute to their non-elite movement leaders.


Contrary to the conventional wisdom in political science studies of Malaysia which assume “ethnicity is king” in the socio-political life of post-colonial, multi-cultural Malaysia, the anthropology of Malaysia has emphasized various historical and cultural processes and projects through which “ethnicity is made king.” Anthropologists have sought to denaturalize and problematize “ethnicity” as a self-evident analytical and real-world category by exploring how the everyday interpretations and practices of social groups, as well as interactions and struggles among them within specific contexts, constitute and reconstitute them (Willford 2006; Nonini 2015). From the case of Pengerang, I hope to contribute to this conversation by highlighting how these dynamic subject-(re)making processes and projects are at once material and infrastructural. These processes and projects through which ethno-religious landscapes and cemetery infrastructures were mobilized and reconstituted as loci of significance and contestation in Pengerang engender novel political actors, subjectivities, practices, and alliances that both contest and are contested at critical political conjunctures.


Gomez, E. T., & Saravanamuttu, J. (Eds.). (2013). The new economic policy in Malaysia: Affirmative action, ethnic inequalities, and social justice. Singapore: NUS Press.

Jomo, K. S. (2004). The new economic policy and interethnic relations in Malaysia. Geneva: UNRISD.

Nonini, D. M. (2015). “Getting by”: Class and state formation among Chinese in Malaysia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Scott, J. C. (1985). Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Willford, A. C. (2006). Cage of freedom: Tamil identity and the ethnic fetish in Malaysia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



[1] According to the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, the bumiputera category consists of: (1) the Malays, (2) the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, and (3) orang asli, the tribal or aboriginal peoples.

[2] For more on the NEP in Malaysia and its legacies and controversies, see Jomo (2004), Gomez and Saravanamuttu (Eds.) (2013).

[3] The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the largest and busiest deepwater seaport in Europe. The Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) ports receive oil and gas from the North Sea, the Middle East, and Russia and support the largest integrated refinery and petrochemical cluster in Europe.

[4] Over 30% of world maritime crude oil is processed and disseminated at the “chokepoint” of the Strait of Malacca before reaching oil hungry Asian countries, such as China, India, Japan, and South Korea. Most of this is done in Singapore because of its strategic location on the international shipping routes connecting the East and the West and its advanced financial and industrial infrastructures (compared to the neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, the two other countries also located on the Strait of Malacca).

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