Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History and Politics Program and CAPSTRANS Research Institute - Faculty of Arts


This thesis examines the discursive representation of working-class women and work in the development of the Malay Peninsula during the colonial and post-colonial periods. It questions the selective appearance of womens labour in official records, and traces representations of women and work in the colonial discourses of the 1900s through to those that supported Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Bin Mohamads vision for a modern Malaysia in order to analyse the continuities and discontinuities in Malaysian concepts about women and work. My research reveals that in the colonial period women were engaged in many types of waged work in the Federated Malay States, but only sex workers receive more than peripheral attention in archival documents. The societal positioning of women within the family context as wives, daughters and mothers served to deny womens status and identity as worker. However, womens socially accepted roles did not prevent them from being represented in anthropological and fictional texts of the period as part of the orientalist discourse of the exotic other. I argue in this study that this complex positioning of colonised women denied them a sense of identity as workers. The reality of womens lives continued to be obscured through the conflation of cultural structures, market forces, and national development after Independence. As a result of the post-colonial government�s drive to transform Malay agricultural workers into urban workers, large numbers of Malay women joined the blue-collar workforce. In the 1970s Malay women from the kampongs were celebrated as factory workers and emphasis was placed on their docile nature and nimble fingers; their skills and docility were used to sell Malaysia as a site for footloose manufacturing. Yet, more recently, female factory workers have been increasingly ignored in official discourse. The nimble-fingered, unskilled female worker has been replaced by the professional woman worker and the (implicitly male) knowledge worker in discourses of Malaysias successful industrialisation. This shift reinforced gendered stereotypes of work and workers - rather than dissipating them - by bringing with it the return of a shroud of invisibility, reminiscent of the colonial period, over working-class women�s work. These gendered stereotypes of work have been reinforced by other discursive frames concerning their sexuality which resonate with colonial discourses about the female worker. Within these discourses, working-class womens work efforts have continued to be undermined by the emphasis placed on womens sexuality and reproduction.

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