Kabel (Malaysia)

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Kabel 🇲🇾
Malaysia map.png
Location: Malaysia
Definition: Political or administrative connection to people in positions of influence
Keywords: Euphemism Ties Malaysia Southeast Asia Patronage Favour Reciprocity Network
Clusters: Economies of favours Patron-client networks
Author: Christian Giordano
Affiliation: Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
Website: Wikipedia entry

By Christian Giordano, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Kabel in Bahasa Malaysia derives from the English term cable, has literally the same meaning, indicating connection in a technical sense. In Malaysia, however, kabel has also developed a parallel meaning, implying connection to people in high places politically or administratively. As Wong Chun Wai aptly observes, kabel “means you need to have the support of an influential figure who is as strong as a cable. It’s no longer good enough to “pull strings” but you must be able to “pull cable” for your plans to get off” (Wong Chun Wai, 2017, 19).

In this case, it is not only about sociability, but also the instrumentality of political or administrative networks that can help solve an important problem for those lacking access to resources. The connotations of the phrase ‘do you have kabel?’ include personal relations with those in power, or someone who can solve a problem and can be resorted to in times of need. The term kabel is connected to the term jalan, which in Bahasa Malaysia means road or way. In fact, the colloquial phrase ‘You got jalan ah?’ is very common (Wong Chun Wai , 2017, 19) and refers to a way of getting things done. This is a straightforward way of asking an acquaintance or a friend whether they can help solve a complex situation with the public administration through an informal and personalized relationship comparable to the ones that characterize kabel. Therefore, jalan is ‘the way’ to link to kabel connections in order to find a quick solution to a specific political or administrative problem.

From an anthropological or sociological point of view, in Malaysia kabel primarily implies the existence of specific connections, i.e. the useful ones or, more precisely, with who can help solve issues. Therefore, kabel has to do with informal personal relationships that can guarantee a favourable solution of a given problem which cannot be untangled through formal channels. These lamentable snags are chiefly caused by formal, i.e. legal, bureaucratic or political delays or hindrances.

In general, a social relationship linked to the term kabel occurs between individuals with different social standings. Since as a rule there is a marked discrepancy between actors A and B in terms of opportunities to wield power and to access economic resources, there will also be a definite socioeconomic difference. Kabel is a kind of the patron/client relationship entailing reciprocal services, in accordance with the principle of do ut des, that are indispensable for the client but less so for the patron. The patron/client relationship is characterized by a structural asymmetry because the client is more dependent on the patron than vice versa. The client, therefore, has less access (if any) to power than the patron, who instead is usually a member of the state’s political and administrative establishment. In line with researches in other societies, in Malaysia as well the kabel relationships are an integral part of highly complex and informal clientelist coalitions in which the patron often acts as intermediary between the client and the politician or public official.

As Wong Chun Wai (2017) and Nadeswaran (2016) rightly point up, exchanges of favours in Malaysia are not equally reciprocal because a person with more power will also have important personalized connections within the political, bureaucratic and economic machine, more so than someone lacking connections. Hence, the relationships associated with the term kabel are structurally asymmetrical. Though service performances are based on the principle of reciprocity, this does not entail similar or equivalent services. Those with higher political, economic or social positions can exploit and reallocate more important resources than those who lack these connections.

Consequently, kabel chiefly involves interpersonal and dyadic relationships governed by mutual rights and duties, which are perceived as informal but overall indispensable and practically mandatory. Those with a lower social standing, therefore, will need kabel more than those with a higher social standing, rather than vice versa. Thus, a relationship linked to the social logic of kabel binds a weaker person to the stronger, and can last for a long period of time. This leads to the establishment of practically indissoluble dependency relationships that are viewed as useful if not indeed mandatory, especially by those who believe to be in a condition of social inferiority and limited access to resources.

As observed by scholars, kabel does not consist of a single dyadic relationship but rather is grounded in vast interpersonal networks comprising a patron, backed by a considerable number of clients, even if their support is perhaps half-hearted. Thus, kabel is best viewed not only as an interpersonal phenomenon, but also as a collective one, especially when kabel relationships are mobilized wholesale as at election time. In such cases, kabel practices are patron-driven and aimed at top-down soliciting of electoral support. Where kabel practices are initiated by bottom-up requests, and shaped by the need to redistribute resources, kabel practices are perceived as clientelist. Both top-down and bottom-up requests enact the co-dependency of kabel relationships. Such co-dependency accounts for a lot of behaviours and strategies, servicing the patron-client nature of the Malaysian institutions. The mutual – patron-client – use of kabel practices characterizes the hidden structure of the vast majority of organizations and power structures in Malaysia. Consequently, kabel practices and relationships, serve both patrons and clients. They are regarded as the underpinnings of a widespread system based on informal networks and practices, but also define the workings of official, and thus formal, public institutions. In the end, what is viewed to be an electoral support from the perspective of the patron, is considered to be an accelerator to obtain public services for a client.

Ever since achieving independence (August 31, 1957), Malaysia has enjoyed a remarkable political stability compared to the vast majority of the so-called Third World countries. The exception were the traumatic ethnic riots between Malays and Chinese on May 13, 1969, which have since come to be regarded as the nation’s negative myth, i.e. incidents that must never occur again (Watson Andaya & Andaya, 2001). Moreover, there have been no attempted coups and or challenges to the political and administrative continuity. The parliamentary system in particular has never been challenged, although the reputation of politicians is somewhat tarnished.

Since 2010, this trust deficit worsened in Malaysia, especially after the scandal of the firm 1MDB (One Malaysia Development Berhad) in which the Prime Minister Najib Abdur Razak and his family members were involved. Yet, Malaysia has a rather efficient government agency which investigates and prosecutes corruption (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, MACC) and civil society in particular reacted by ousting the entire government at the general election held on May 9, 2018. Thus, it would be a mistake to think that social practices linked to public mistrust in politics and bureaucracy are generalized, even though the personalized relationships that characterize transactions related to kabel are still very common throughout the country. In these specific cases there is a noticeable ambivalence between the citizens’ participation in current political life and the mistrust in institutions on which the typical kabel relationships are founded.

Despite the unexpected outcome of the latest election, politicians and bureaucrats have little trust from citizens, who continue to have reservations about trusting impersonal institutions. This results in a fundamental fracture between the State’s legality and its corresponding legitimacy. Thus, the common people are aware of legality but hardly respect and acknowledge the state authority and do not grant it the necessary legitimacy. According to the penal code, defrauding the state and its institutions is illegal, but from the point of view of the individual subjects, it is an acceptable and often legitimate practice. Thus, although an offence, kabel is not perceived by the citizenry as crime or disloyalty of the state institutions. Rather, it is seen to be a form of personalized justice and a defence strategy against the arbitrariness of the public sector. Perhaps, a good way to describe the stance of Malaysians towards the state, is a confrontation between society and the state, resulting in the neutralisation of the state by infiltrating its institutions through personalized connections (Clastres 1974). It is not the case of rebellion or collective open resistance, but rather a set of individual infiltration strategies into the public sector. Such individual strategies constitute highly personalized networks, grounded in clientelist dependence, on the one hand, and ensuring the continuing power of patrons, on the other (Boissevain 1974; Eisenstadt and Roniger 1984; Giordano 2012, 13 ff.; Giordano 2018, 10 ff.).


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Clastres, P. 1974. La société contre l’Etat. Paris: Editions de Minuit

Eisenstadt, S. and Roniger, L. 1984. Patrons, Clients and Friends: Interpersonal Relations and the Structure of Trust in Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Giordano, C. "The Anthropology of Mediterranean Societies", in Kockel, U., Craith M. and Frykman, J. (eds.), A Companion to the Anthropology of Europe, Oxford, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 13-31

Giordano, C. 2018. "Klientelismus und Patronage als Sozial- und Kulturphänomen. Theoretische Reflexionen zu informellen Beziehungsstrukturen", in Roth, K. and Zelepos I. (eds.), Klientelismus in Südosteuropa, Berlin: Peter Lang Verlag, 10-28

Nadeswaran, R. 2016. Curi Curi: Stories behind the Stories, Kuala Lumpur: Self-Publication

Wong Chun Wai. 2017. "Mind your Words, Please", The Star, 23 April, www.thestar.com.my

Watson Andaya B. and Andaya L. 2001. A History of Malaysia, London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan