The art of living with (subaltern) Others and the politics of fun

In a seminal study of urban societies in the Middle East, Asef Bayat [1] highlights the importance of co-existence and mutuality in the lives of the urban poor. In contrast to other urban studies scholars such as Mike Davis, Bayat suggests that it is not fatalism, chaos and a politics of inferno that characterizes the subaltern poor living in informal settlements and slums, but a different type of politics – an everyday cosmopolitanism that represents living with differences and finding ways to co-exist. At the heart of his analysis of informal life in cities such as Cairo and Tehran is the notion of dignity – peoples’ compulsion and need to always find ways to live their lives and build towards betterment regardless of the limitations on resources and formal avenues that they might have.


In Life as Politics, Bayat characterizes everyday cosmopolitanism as necessary for the practice of living with ‘agonistic others’ – in the case of Cairo, for example, Muslims and Coptic Christians finding ways to live as neighbors. In a similar vein, urban Malaysia is a home to groups and communities split along too many religious and ethnic lines to account for, to the point that being antagonistic to others becomes merely acts to political power – which unfortunately becomes mobilized through nationalistic and populist agendas. At the everyday level, the subaltern poor of Malaysia, many of who come from displaced communities, do no have the luxury nor the privilege to be ideological or outright political. For the scores of temporary labor migrants, refugees, undocumented and stateless populations, sharing resources and networks among each other becomes a means of both survival and stability, albeit often in an informal sense.


The migrant or ‘PATI’ (Pendatang tanpa izin – undocumented/illegal immigrant) is often seen as a threat to the public order, particularly when groups become associated with crime, violence and poverty. In Malaysia, different migrant groups – the Indonesians, Bengali, Burmese, Nepali, and others – are often seen to be at odds with one another, competing, sometimes violently, to establish their presence and dominance, particularly in the low-skill sectors and manual labor. However, what is misunderstood in this context (and many others) is the reality that most migrant communities are largely peaceful and accommodating of one another, despite the perceived differences. It is possible to see this cosmopolitanism when one pays attention to the myriad ways in which different migrants interact and engage with each other for mutually beneficial reasons, such as cooking and sharing meals, helping set up homes, finding work, and even starting relationships and families.

A key transformative aspect of these unseen forms of cosmopolitanism among subaltern migrants is their capacity to find ways to ‘play’ and have fun. Particularly among the younger migrants, finding ways to have fun, especially when they have been subject to institutional restrictions on their rights and freedoms, becomes a way to passively resist their oppressive conditions without overt resistance. For migrants like Faizul, Adam and Siti, learning to have fun during their everyday routines offers them ways to disrupt the mundanity of work by engaging in playful activities and hobbies. Young men moonlighting as bartenders in Penang, for example, also use their ‘downtime’ to hang out with one another, flirt and spend time with local women, and go for walks at the beachfront.

As temporary and undocumented people, migrants are deemed undeserving of ‘fun’ by the state – through it’s immigration regimes and enforcement agents. There is a fundamentally disruptive character to migrants who can engage in activities and relationships that bring them joy and pleasure. As foreigners and aliens, their role is primarily to work and nothing else. They are not politically active in a traditional sense. However, the critical significance of subaltern laughter should not be underestimated or overlooked. Sometimes, it is in these spaces of joy and fun that we might find the biggest secret of migrant life in the city – that people, even the poor and marginalized, are able to find ways to be happy despite their precarious conditions and despite the state’s best efforts to keep them down.


[1] Bayat, Life as Politics.


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