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In Session: Decoding Identity across Legal Fora: Lessons from Law and Technology in Asia
4: Qualities of Life in the Malaysian Plantationocene
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Pennsylvania, United States
On April 20, 2020, Liberty Shared — an anti-trafficking organization based in Hong Kong — sent a petition to the acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Agency calling for a ban on palm oil imports from Malaysia’s Sime Darby Berhad, alleging evidence of forced labor in the firm’s supply chain. By July, the petition became subject to widespread news coverage in the Malaysian and international media, and the fallout was swift, though not in the ways one might expect. Activists and researchers in the east Malaysian state of Sabah cried foul of the report’s claims, lauding Sime Darby as the positive exception in Sabah’s plantation economy sector, and noting the firm’s ongoing collective agreements with the Sabah Plantation Industry Employees Union, in contrast to its infamous, illegally operating counterparts. In these senses and among these interested publics, the petition’s truth value hinged upon the question of gradable qualities of life. Believing, with Whitehead (1938), that the “notion of the environment introduces the notion of ‘more and less,’” this paper examines how certain qualities of life are differentially weighed and contrastively reckoned in the environment of the plantation estate. In so doing, it explores the ramifications of such “gradings” (Carruthers 2017) for Sabah’s shifting sociopolitical scene, and for social science research more generally.