15 posts

Vol. 4, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, NAKAMURA Shohei

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

The Politics of Protection Rackets in Post-New Order Indonesia: Coercive Capital, Authority and Street Politics
Ian Douglas Wilson
Oxon, NY: Routledge, 2015, xxii+198p.

Seventeen years have passed since the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime. Indonesia’s reformasi has since been lauded as a successful case of democratization. Despite the consolidation of institutional democracy, however, some critics have argued that the conventional system of power relations established by the end of New Order still persists, while others have argued that distribution of power and material resources is still under the strong influence of a small number of very wealthy individuals (Ford and Pepinsky 2014). By giving a clear account of the changing condition regarding the politics of racketeering and mass organizations in Jakarta, this book illustrates that the principle of local politics fundamentally altered after the end of the authoritarian regime.

The originality of this study is twofold: it sees Jakarta as a site of local politics rather than the center of national politics; it also sheds lights on the positive side of mass mobilization. Studies on mass mobilization in decentralizing Indonesia have been predominantly about the local politics of regions outside Jakarta, if not about politics at a national level. More importantly, they have largely disregarded the potential for mass organizations to be “advocates on issues of immediate consequence to their members and the neighborhoods in which they live” (p. 94).

In Chapter 1, “Protection, Violence and the State,” the author sets up the theoretical framework for his study. Following Charles Tilly, the author starts by denying the state’s complete monopoly over the control of coercive force within its territory. However, while Tilly identifies state as an entity “controlling the principle means of coercion within a given territory” (Tilly 1975, 62), Wilson sees the state, with Joel Migdal, as a “field of power marked by the use and threat of violence” (Migdal 2001, 15) and the aim of his study as “identifying the dynamics and contradictions of the practices and strategies of the parts making up this ‘field of power’” (ibid., 16). Thus, the boundary between state and non-state actors is essentially blurred. Furthermore, Wilson cites the criminologist Alfredo Schulte-Bockholt, who differs from Tilly in seeing the state “as the product of a particular historical period and stage of state-formation” (p. 10) in order to conceptualize the relation between regimes and the protection of rackets as “protection racket regimes.” These regimes are “formed by state and/or non-state elites in order to preserve their domination through the violent exclusion of large groups in society that experience condition of substantial social disparities” (Schulte-Bockholt 2006, 35). But unlike Schulte-Bockholt, who presumes that power elites would simply subsume sub-hegemonic groups into the dominating class “across conventional class lines” both systematically and ideologically (pp. 8–9), Wilson draws a different picture. For mass organizations in post-New Order Jakarta are “largely untethered from the direct control of the military or police,” where “the racket as a relationship of domination” operates in a “peculiar brand of populist racketeering” (p. 172).

In Chapter 2, “Reconfigured Rackets: Continuity, Change and Consolidation,” the author outlines how gangs and mass organizations adapted to the post-New Order social environment and how they transformed themselves from racketeers into “professional” protection providers. Demographic domination of the poor due to massive immigration and their spatial segregation from the upper-middle class due to a growing number of enclave residences characterize the urban space of Jakarta. These conditions gave rise to insecurity and a feeling of deprivation among the lower middle-class population in the city, including Betawi. On top of this situation was the nation-wide political trend of democratization and decentralization, which gave rise to “a particular kind of populist political agency of the urban poor,” who claim to have grass-roots relations with the urban underclass and to represent such people (p. 20).

The city administration soon sought to take advantage of this situation in order to regain control of the security over the city. For them, it seemed more reasonable to utilize Betawi groups by encouraging the consolidation of their rackets than to tackle directly the gangs originating from eastern parts of the archipelago. Local political actors were keen to establish alliances with organizations calling for the rights of the indigenous Betawi population. Thus, political alliances in Jakarta increasingly became “based upon communal identities and populist rights demands of various social groups based in critiques of the state, rather than one-way vertical lines of political patronage and defence of state ideology” (p. 29).

Chapter 3, “A New Order of Crime: Suharto’s Racket Regime,” briefly explains the relationship between state and violent entrepreneurs under the New Order regime. While the New Order state did not have a monopoly over coercive force, it forged informal alliances with non-state organizations. Such organizations were “subcontracted” and only loosely allied to the state apparatus, but they employed violence “under the guise of the state and its symbols” (p. 38). While encouraging some violent entrepreneurs to integrate under state institutions, the state eliminated others via purges. Eventually, the state created the complex and delicate mechanism of political backings “based upon contingent patronage,” which was transformed dramatically into something more unstable and opportunistic after democratization (p. 56).

Chapter 4, “The Changing of the Preman Guard” focuses on one of the biggest informal sector districts of Tanah Abang in Central Jakarta, and examines the transformation of patronage patterns during the period between 1997 and 2002. In this district, the East Timorese youths organized by Hercules took power during the 1990s. Hercules had close ties with the military figure Prabowo Subianto after cooperating with him in the fight against guerrillas in East Timor in the late 1980s. Tacit yet firm backing by Prabowo made him a prominent gang figure in Jakarta. However, the economic crisis in 1997 triggered uneasiness and resentment against harsh extortion by these “outsiders.” Upon its formation, an organization formed by the indigenous Betawi population in the district, called Family of Tanah Abang Association (IKBT), soon received an endorsement from the city administration. In pursuing anti-preman campaigns, Governor Sutiyoso strategically made use of emergent ethnic tensions based on the “native versus other” rhetoric. He recruited local Betawi gangs during the campaigns to eliminate gangs from eastern Indonesia.

It should be noted that “the stage upon which his strategies were played out was radically different” from that of New Order (p. 80). The case of Tanah Abang epitomizes the nation-wide shift in the nature of alliances between the formal administration and preman organizations. The fragmented nature of political allegiances brought about by democratization led to a shift “away from a vertical dependence upon powerful patrons” (p. 83) toward “fragmented and frequently shifting alliances” (p. 147). Now that local politics had become a contested arena for coalitions of different political interests, it was no longer a necessity for the leadership of preman organizations to gain firm support from formal authority in order to survive and prosper. To do so was now at best advantageous.

This changing political landscape engendered a highly self-conscious and often exclusivist sense of localism. In Jakarta, this typically resulted in heightened ethnic tensions and turf wars, especially until the mid- to late-2000s (p. 118). In Chapter 5, “The Rise of the Betawi,” the author highlights Jakarta’s case, taking examples from vigilante groups claiming to represent ethnic Betawi. Violent entrepreneurs who established groups like FBR (Betawi Brotherhood Forum) saw broadened opportunities to mobilize the masses by bringing ethnic symbolism in the forefront. They sought to build alliances with political elites by showcasing their ability to represent the native lower-middle class population who had long been marginalized from urban development. Such violent entrepreneurs were in that sense Janus-faced: at times they became “advocates on issues of immediate consequence to their members and the neighborhoods in which they live,” and at other times they could be subcontracted to political elites on their demand for violent protests (p. 94). As such, groups like FBR were initially very offensive in character, provoking clashes over turf and violent protests through the use of ethnicized class tensions. The consequences were often disadvantageous to and exploitative of lower-middle class kampung residents who were supposed to be the very objective of their mobilization.

From the onset of its expansion, however, FBR went well beyond the domain of violent racketeering. In Chapter 6, “Jakarta’s Political Economy of Rackets,” the author traces the transformation of FBR since the mid-2000s. During this time the city administration and Jakarta Police Department strategically (and implicitly) backed up Betawi mass organizations in the hope that the urban security would be more orderly and predictable. The consequences were a substantial expansion of the organization’s territorial boundaries and a radical transformation of its working principle. The primary concern for FBR quickly shifted from “the turf wars of East Jakarta” (p. 136), to something more common to the urban working-class across the city. This was due in part to the rapid expansion in its constituency and the subsequent emergence of a city-wide network of lower-middle class neighborhoods. As FBR expanded itself through “a city-wide network of branch franchises” (p. 120), activities of newly established branches were deeply embedded in the social world of respective neighborhoods. This process of expansion led to less restraint and more autonomy for the branches, hence mass mobilization becoming increasingly populist in character.

Results from 2014 presidential election were indicative of a further reinforcement of these trends, as is detailed in Chapter 7, “Coercive Capital, Political Entrepreneurship and Electoral Democracy.” During the campaign, most leaders of mass organizations in Jakarta publicly supported Prabowo Subianto, the former military figure and one of the most powerful oligarchs during and after the New Order. This happened in spite of his support for Hercules, the once powerful East Timorese gang leader, because Prabowo “appeared most likely to deliver concrete material returns” (p. 174). Robust continuity from the former authoritarian regime was once again brought to the fore. However, Prabowo’s defeat by Joko Widodo, the symbol of Indonesia’s popularizing democracy, together with the precedent elimination of Hercules by the Police Department and national political elites, were signs that the populist political trend was to be further reinforced.

Overall, this book is an intriguing work that provides a comprehensive and detailed picture of a changing political landscape full of diverse actors ranging from state to non-state actors including violent entrepreneurs in post-New Order Jakarta. This study is especially insightful in that the author sees mass organizations’ appeal to political elites not in terms of their actual ability to mobilize people for voting or the grass-roots relations that they establish in local neighborhoods, but in terms of their sheer ability to bolster or demonstrate such an image. Only on this basis is it possible to understand why organizations like FBR can gain support from formal political actors despite the fluidity of political allegiances from the members.

It is regrettable, however, that the book does not go beyond depicting the political relationship between formal actors and the leadership of mass organizations. The author’s detailed investigations on neighborhood-level activities in two of the huge market districts (the case of Tanah Abang in Chapter 4 and that of Pasar Minggu in Chapter 6) are fundamentally about the economy of racketeering and turf politics pursued by violent entrepreneurs, whose activities often turn out to be inconsistent with, if not contradictory to, the will of local residents. His investigations do not clearly present a picture of neighborhood residents actively engaging in or making use of organizational activities for their own sake. Such a perspective is important if the current political trend were (as the author hopes) to “move beyond populist rhetoric,” to tackle “the structural conditions reproducing poverty and social and political exclusion,” and to “be transformed into more directly representative social movements of the street” (p. 174). Nevertheless, this does not reduce the significance of this study. By offering a careful examination of the changing dynamics of local politics concerning diverse actors ranging from politicians to violent entrepreneurs, Wilson successfully reveals how and why the mode of mass mobilization and political alliances became increasingly fluid and populist in Jakarta.

Nakamura Shohei 中村昇平
Graduate School of Letters, Kyoto University


Ford, Michele; and Pepinsky, Thomas B., eds. 2014. Beyond Oligarchy: Wealth, Power, and Contemporary Indonesian Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Migdal, Joel S. 2001. State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schulte-Bockholt, Alfredo. 2006. The Politics of Organized Crime and the Organized Crime of Politics: A Study in Criminal Power. Maryland: Lexington Books.

Tilly, Charles. 1975. Reflections on the History of European State-Making. In The Formation of Nation States in Western Europe, edited by Charles Tilly, pp. 3–83. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Vol. 4, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Caroline GRILLOT

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Beyond Borders: Stories of Yunnanese Chinese Migrants of Burma
Wen-Chin Chang
Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014, xiii+278p.

Responding to a call for studies on the varied ethnic Chinese societies in host countries around the world, Wen-Chin Chang’s Beyond Borders explores the whereabouts of the Yunnanese Chinese who migrated to Burma before and around the Chinese Communist Party’s access to power in 1949, and addresses the issue of their consequent socio-political marginality.

General scholarly approaches consider migration as a flow of anonymous people, taken within a historico-political context that leaves them with little choice. They respond more or less effectively to impulsive economic ambitions and mercantile nature and are driven by despair and/or hope for a different life. In her account, Chang sketches a more subtle picture. Here, building on long-term relationships established within a community scattered over an extended territory that includes Yunnan, Burma, Thailand, and Taiwan and with some characters particular to the past two decades, Chang succeeds in bringing back faces, names, stories, anecdotes, and the individual experiences of these people. Anonymous heroes of forgotten struggles, incredible families, and motivated entrepreneurs all come to life through their stories. Chang’s work sheds light on the fundamental entanglement of this community with unstable foreign and risky contexts that have compelled individuals to constantly redefine their very conditions of survival.

The book is organized into two main sections that each includes four chapters: the history of Yunnanese migrants’ mobility in Burma, and their involvement in cross-border trade. Each of the chapters starts with a description of the author’s field site and her approach to her informants through connections that echo throughout the whole book. This provides the reader with a sense of the importance of the community network. Chang also presents personal narratives that in their own way shed light on migrant’s experiences in Burma. The eight chapters are dedicated to one community of this group, in turn represented by one or several individuals or by one theme that reveals a specific aspect of the history and the economic strategies that framed their settlement.

Be they refugees, soldiers, cross-border smugglers, caravans’ muleteers, or jade traders, all have experienced extraordinary journeys that have led them and their families from Yunnan to Taiwan via Burma and Thailand over several generations. Chang approaches the success and failures of these groups which are characterized by their economic activity (with the exception of the Muslim Yunnanese and women) through several themes that emerge recurrently in most narratives: military conflicts, illegal trade, an underground banking system, drug addiction, constant displacement, the scattering of families, and social networks. In this specific context, the lives of Yunnanese migrants in Burma particularly enlighten Chinese diaspora diversity and struggles that sustain the laboring capacity that one more generally attribute them.

Beyond Borders provides insights on the ways different groups of Chinese refugees from Yunnan, their families, and the subsequent generations established themselves in Burma and transcended their socio-political marginality. As refugees they lacked state recognition and protection and thus relied heavily on the support of the remaining Kuomintang army. Still, the accounts provided by Chang’s informants give the impression that collecting the life story of any Yunnanese migrant in Burma can disclose a series of fascinating and challenging adventures. First of all, they show how trade and migration trajectories are intertwined with local politics, ethnic conflicts, and a balance of power that, according to the period, could favor or ostracize the presence of Chinese and their activities. Indeed, despite this uneven context, life stories also reveal how the constant interconnection between Yunnanese ethnic groups—be they social or military—and Burmese ethnic groups led to business collaborations that benefited many. Several informants emphasized how relationships with local groups (ethnic minorities and Burmese) can fluctuate, vacillating between, on the one hand, kindness and good neighborhood milieus with ethnic groups such as the Shan, and, on the other hand, contempt and avoidance of the Burmese. Nonetheless the book offers an alternative depiction of the bond that Han Chinese can establish with other ethnic groups once they escape the dominant political propaganda emanating from China.

In the framework of a context that reveals the fragility of imposed ethnic categories and boundaries, Chang’s analysis explores two specific aspects of this very mobile community: initial marginality and transnationalism. What could be perceived as contradictory characteristics actually constitute a driving force for families determined to not only survive but to go beyond the structural limits that their mobility and status inflicted upon them in pursuit of a better life. The book praises the Yunnanese spirit, resistance, strength, and networking ability, as well as their mercantile consciousness. For many of the first-generation Yunnanese who settled in Burma, migration was the only option to escape their socio-political position in China (be that the Kuomintang army, or any of the “black categories,” as defined during the Cultural Revolution, i.e. landlords, rich farmers, anti-revolutionaries, bad-influencers, and right-wingers) but it also entailed switching their position in the social hierarchy by taking whatever jobs are available in their new surroundings to make a living.

To endure marginality in the first period of settlement, Yunnanese migrants relied on both their intragroup behavior and external support. Most life stories emphasize the importance given to maintaining their identity in a foreign country, i.e. their cultural roots (food, language, and religion education), and transmitting their values (solidarity, anti-communism, and religion), in a distinctive way separate from the Fujianese and Cantonese Chinese settled in south Burma who are, according to the Yunnanese, more acculturated. To survive, the Yunnanese Chinese have demonstrated a strong sense of initiative and creativity, using all their potential skills to overcome challenges and frictions in an insecure environment. To support them, the Kuomintang army based in Burma since their escape from China resettled in northern Thailand in the 1960s. Their incomes came from controlling drug trafficking trade in jade stones and the protection of caravans. This provided Yunnanese migrants with an informal economic surrounding to reconstruct their lives in Burmese society despite their vulnerable status and allowed them to develop a form of community coherence and solidarity.

Thanks to their fascinating ability to rely on and extend their families and their ethnic and religious networks, these migrants were able to tackle their marginal status. On several levels, the strength of these networks has allowed them to undertake and sustain individual risk-taking projects. Chang calls these national and transnational networks the “intragroup nexuses,” or connections based on references rather than familiarity (in the context of mobility). The life stories of this book clearly demonstrate how social and economic survival depends on mobility, opportunities, and connections. Still, they also stress that serendipity and unexpected encounters can lead to different paths. The intimate dimension of migration disclosed in some accounts (see Guoguang’s story, chapter 3) emphasizes that individual’s destinies rely as much on unhappy circumstances as on fortunate encounters. Transnationalism, as experienced by the Yunnanese migrants in Burma, is about maintaining social connections between their home society Yunnan and the societies of settlement such as Burma, followed by Thailand and Taiwan. Particularly inspiring is the case of the Yunnanese Muslims (chapter 4), a closely tied group within the Chinese community. Because of their religious links with Muslim countries, their mobility takes them beyond Asia. They adjust to their host societies either through their cultural roots (while studying in Arab countries, they connect with other Asians) or their religious faith (after migrating to Taiwan, they connect with other Muslims), according to their needs. Therefore, the Muslim Yunnanese are an example of dynamism and flexibility. Despite unavoidable sacrifices, these two qualities have helped them transcend their double marginality (Chinese and Muslim) within the frame of a double transnational network: the regional Chinese diaspora and the international Islamic community.

The strength of this book is the space the author gives to personal narratives. In this refreshing ethnography, Chang demonstrates how the vivid descriptions of life trajectories and intimate relationships of ordinary people, supported by clear explanations on the chaotic historical political circumstances in which they are grounded, can be more revealing than reconstituted realities inspired by scarce documentation available to foreign observers. This is precisely the value of Chang’s work. Her perspective steps around the economic performance of the Chinese diaspora and concentrates on linking national history with people’s lives in a very enlightening and lively way.

This is definitely a richly documented account of the historical roots of Yunnanese settlements in Burmese borderlands, their influence, and their involvement with trade. Banned by the Burmese government and only protected by armed ethnic groups, Yunnanese cross-border trade with Thailand supported the Burmese economy during its socialist regime. During the dictatorial military regime, trade with China became prominent but was still a risky business until the new democratic regime allowed more flexibility and new influx of Chinese. Chang delivers a rich analysis of this complex context through the words of those once involved in this underground yet dynamic economy. She provides reliable figures on the ground realities that were difficult to investigate when they were taking place. Doing so draws out how transnationalism has been practiced by Yunnanese migrants and how it has partially transformed the region. Chang also questions the usual understanding of borders as remote areas negatively labelled as “wasteland, backward and lawless” (p. 174) with a limited perspective. Even though Yunnanese migrants have been living on the margins of the Burmese state, they have contributed to opening the country to the outside world, and participated in its economic survival, revealing the double nature of borderlands as “peripheral and central, separate and connected” (p. 174).

Less convincing maybe is the section related to gender roles and women’s involvement in the economic sphere. Chang draws on her informants’ life trajectories, their plight, and their struggle to overcome fatalism driven by commitment to their family well-being. Although the author’s analysis of these stories is convincing, it is not specific to this particular group and would have become more interesting if she had adopted a comparative perspective. Regarding the issue of gender roles and expectations, many of the Yunnanese women’s narratives challenge the usual stereotypes on hardworking and responsible Chinese men, and highlight the contrasting and unusual image of brave and strong women compelled to take on the breadwinning role of the family. In this case, one can observe similar strategies in several societies in Southeast Asia where women who find themselves trapped between their traditional duty and their unreliable husbands are constrained to find ways to ensure their family’s survival. Furthermore, the author’s arguments could have benefited from further comparison with the difficult position of other mobile diaspora in the region, such as Chinese in Northern Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (Nyíri 2012; Tan 2012), or ethnic groups in Yunnan related to Burmese ethnic guerrillas for instance.

Besides the fascinating stories that nourish this account of a largely ignored Chinese diaspora, and the rigorous historical approach to their contemporary situation, this book is also a real pleasure to read. It distinguishes itself from other academic works that often tend to overload ethnographic accounts with excessive references and global perspectives that sometimes seem artificially developed. Moreover, the author shares her ethnographer experiences with a confounding honesty and vivid descriptions (with the occasional doubts), recalling her feelings in the process of collecting life stories. In a sense we are able to feel the closeness that she has cultivated with her informants and their families who gave her privileged insights into their lives. Simultaneously this has exposed the limits of her objectivity. Chang questions the boundaries of the anthropologist with humility, adding a personal touch that is rare, while providing a sense of the ethnographer’s proximity to her informants, and the degree of mutual trust and expectations such fragile relationships implicitly entail (chapters 2, 3).

Despite the lack of comparative perspective that would have enhanced further the unique specificities of Yunnanese migrants in Burma, Beyond Borders remains an academic achievement and a very relevant addition to the literature on diasporas in Southeast Asia. Works like this inevitably improve our understanding of the socioeconomic and political changes currently occurring in this strategic country.

Caroline Grillot
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology


Nyíri, Pál. 2012. Investors, Managers, Brokers, and Culture Workers: How the “New” Chinese Are Changing the Meaning of Chineseness in Cambodia. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 4: 93–117.

Tan, Danielle. 2012. “Small Is Beautiful”: Lessons from Laos for the Study of Chinese Overseas. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 41(2): 61–94.



Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Champions of Buddhism: Weikza Cults in Contemporary Burma
Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, Guillaume Rozenberg, and Alicia Turner, eds.
Singapore: NUS Press, 2014, xxvii+261p.

Exciting things are happening in the study of Burmese Buddhism. Recent years have seen the publication of very important contributions to our understanding of this field. In particular, investigations of the roots of the “mindfulness” meditation phenomenon as a Burmese reaction to colonialism have garnered attention far beyond a scholarly audience concerned with Burma exclusively (for example, Braun 2013). Though fascinating, this focus on the origins and spread of the so-called vipassanā meditation movement has neglected what Kate Crosby, in the preface to Champions of Buddhism, calls “the Other Burmese Buddhism,” by which she means the popular yet politically marginal set of practices belonging to the so-called weikza-path. It is to examining this path that Champions of Buddhism is devoted, both as an introduction to this under-investigated phenomenon and as a stimulus to further inquiries into the nature of Buddhism in Burma and Buddhist global modernity in general. In both respects, it succeeds marvelously.

Unless they are experts in Burmese Buddhism, readers may at this point wonder what exactly is meant by the term weikza. In the foreword to the volume, the editors give a good idea by describing weikza as “a religious virtuoso” (p. ix). Because of his behavior, meditation skills, and expertise in the magical arts, a weikza attains the ability to live very long, with the purpose of being present when the next Buddha, Maitreya, appears in our world. Though the usage of magic with the explicit purpose of lengthening one’s life may not sound very “Buddhist” to some, one argument that this volume forcefully makes is that such practices are as Buddhist as monks singing sutras or meditating in temples. In her preface (the book has both a foreword and a preface, but—puzzlingly—no introduction), Crosby explores this alternative Burmese Buddhism by sketching the practical, political, and ideological motivations that have kept it in obscurity for so long. Together with Steven Collins’ postscript, Crosby’s piece connects the materials in the volume to a larger context, a context that is sometimes lost in the detailed accounts collected here.

The main body of the volume is divided into three thematic parts. In the first, the weikza phenomenon is further defined by contrasting it to a number of other Burmese Buddhist and non-Buddhist indigenous practices. In chapter 1, Patrick Pranke distinguishes weikza from another, better known ideal, that of the arahant (Sanskrit: arhat). Whereas the latter are the ultimate goal of practitioners in the vipassanā tradition, the former belong to a different, esoteric path. Nevertheless, both arhats and weikza are revered after their physical body has disappeared (which does not mean that they are considered “dead”). In the course of his description, Pranke provides a useful history of Buddhism in colonial and postcolonial Burma, serving to orient the reader for the chapters to come. In the next chapter, Juliane Schober expands this comparison between vipassanā and weikza practices by affirming that, although weikza are certainly marginalized politically (not having strong connections with the Burmese leaders), doctrinally they are firmly Theravāda Buddhist. In the last chapter of the first part, Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière introduces a final distinction, namely between different types of spirit mediums: on the one hand, there are the nat gadaw, who contact the spirits of dead Burmese kings. On the other, there are the bodaw or medaw, who contact the spirits of physically departed weikza. Brac de la Perrière’s discussion is interesting for several reasons, not in the least because the division she describes is gendered: whereas weikza mediums tend to be male, nat gadaw tend to be female.

The second part of the book then details the role of weikza as protectors of Buddhism. In what I found the most stimulating contribution to the volume, Niklas Foxeus shows that the ariya-weikza organization, a millenarian group centered around a historical person who claimed to be a weikza, can be adequately characterized as a Buddhist fundamentalist group with an anti-Western and anti-colonial agenda. Though the group does not itself perpetrate violence, adherents claim their meditation efforts and rituals lead to the demise of many who threaten Burmese Buddhism. Recently, this group’s primary targets have become Muslims who mass-migrated to Burma under British colonial rule. The group’s stance reminds one of the combative Burmese monks whom we have seen appear in the news headlines more and more often. Foxeus concludes his fascinating treatment with a consideration of how these Buddhists justify violence doctrinally, in other words, how bringing about someone’s death is not a violation of the Buddhist precept of non-violence. In the next contribution to the second part, Keiko Tosa provides a detailed overview of how weikza are called upon to ensure the successful completion of pagodas. In the process, weikza can often steer the construction of such pagodas to reflect their personal viewpoints.

The last part of the book continues the trend of Tosa’s examination by detailing other weikza practices. Thomas Patton documents how sacred diagrams are constructed and used. This focus on non-canonical material allows him to criticize conventional approaches to Buddhism, which tend to be normative in trying to discern the “real” Buddhism. Patton shows that such approaches are not only misguided; they also play into the hands of those who would cast Burma as a protector of such a “pure” Buddhism. The last two chapters of the volume, by Céline Coderey and Guillaume Rozenberg, both address the roles of weikza as healers of non-conventional diseases. Coderey does this within Arakan, a province located in the periphery of Burma. Despite being located at the fringes, Arakan healers nevertheless utilize the prestige of weikza to boost the power and prestige of their healing practices. Finally, Guillaume Rozenberg further explores one specific healing practice, namely exorcism. He is concerned mainly with how weikza exorcists see their own practice, which he situates between active and passive: on the one hand, the exorcist lets another power act through him. On the other, the manifestation of this power depends on his personal virtues.

In exploring a phenomenon about which we know comparatively little, Champions of Buddhism does a superb job. The volume is very well organized, beautifully illustrated, and the contributions are consistently of high quality. My criticisms stem mostly from my position as neither an expert on Burma nor an anthropologist. Since this material is in dialogue with the larger theme of Buddhism and modernity, it could have provided interested readers from different fields a better way in by providing a comprehensive glossary. Such a glossary is included, but at merely three pages it is wholly insufficient for a reader for whom many of the Burmese and Pāli terms will be unfamiliar. For example, in the opening essay sentences like the following caused me pause: “Waya-zawta [a monk] promised his followers sotāpanna through anāgāmī status if they would follow his teachings” (p. 4). Another problem is that the preoccupation with documenting phenomena that were previously not described (such as the building of pagodas, how magical inscriptions work, and so on) prevents many of the contributors in the book from making more solid connections with the socio-political realities of post-colonial Burma. For example, though we are consistently told that weikza are politically marginalized, a consistent analysis of why this is the case is not provided. As I said before, the preface and postscript partly address this problem, but it would have been better had such connections been integrated throughout the volume. However, these are minor objections to a work that both continues exciting conversations and breaks new ground.

Ben Van Overmeire
Literature Department, University of California, San Diego


Braun, Erik. 2013. The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Vol. 4, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Faizah ZAKARIA

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier
Tania Murray Li
Durham: Duke University Press, 2014, 240p.

Land’s End is an intimate analysis of the effects of capitalist relations and a fascinating complement to Li’s previous work The Will to Improve (see Murray Li 2007). While the latter critiques well-intentioned, top-down, large-scale development programs in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi, this new monograph places the spotlight on small-scale farmers in the same province and the insidious effects of capitalism in foreclosing their choices. These indigenous highland peoples, she argues, have plugged into global capitalist circuits of their own volition through their everyday decisions such as the choice of crops to plant and this eventually alienated them from their own lands and each other. Furthermore, while some modernization theories had previously contended that the impact on people so adversely displaced could be mitigated by opportunities for wage work, Li demonstrates that such options were severely limited. “Land’s End” does not refer simply to the ending of access to common land but also to the dead end in employment prospects for thousands of landless highlanders even as some of their neighbors prospered.

Li’s case study is a window for observing the workings of market competition in a society that had been insulated from such circuits until as late as the 1990s. The setting of the study highlights the incursion of almost perfect market competition, a case of free market success rather than market failure. Although Sulawesi had once been colonized, Dutch rule there had been fairly light, especially in the inaccessible highlands, and the Lauje—Li’s subjects—were not compelled to sell either their produce or their labor at that time. It is arguably this element of compulsion that distinguished capitalist relations from pre-capitalist ones. Li defines “capitalist relations” as “the ensemble of relations characterized by private and unequal ownership of the means of production (land, capital), a group of unequal non-owners compelled to sell their labor and the use of capital to generate profit under competitive conditions” (p. 8). Such a definition places the spotlight on the uneven impact of capitalist relations on the actors within the Sulawesi community and these relations become the central focus of this book.

Her argument is structured in five parts. The first chapter elucidates the spatial, social, and trade positions between the highlands and the coast. The villages (desas) tended to be positioned perpendicular to the coast and each group of desas is striated into a hierarchy where power and opportunities increase the closer it is to the coast. The most powerless—socially and politically—were the bela who lived at the highest gradient. Unlike scholars such as Scott (2009) who theorized that the highlands in mainland Southeast Asia were a refuge from state-like polities on the lowlands, Li depicts the Lauje’s relationship with the coast as more vexed than that captured by the coercion-resistance model. While the Lauje tended to keep their distance from state power in the lowlands, they “were marginalized by a discursive regime that saw them as backward” and “came to see themselves in the same light” (p. 56). They were thus simultaneously attracted to the coastal idea of progress while also valuing their autonomy, as evidenced by the fact the highlanders engaged with trade at the coast and paid taxes voluntarily during the colonial period although they retained autonomy in food production.

In general, until the 1990s, the highland economy runs on a dense network of intra-personal relationships. Li shows in the second chapter that the Lauje have a strong recognition of individual autonomy that is based on acknowledging the link between work and ownership. Working the land is a way of staking ownership to it. Even children are awarded the right to earn from the crops that they planted themselves. Along with this implicit recognition to reward individual efforts comes the parallel obligation to care for others. Care and concern are expressed through a network of reciprocity such as communal work parties in which neighbors work for each other for free, and the practice of modagang—buying food from kin and neighbors at cheaper prices, the preference for referring to paid service as a “gift” rather than employment.

These practices began to change as the Lauje started planting cacao. In her third chapter, Li explained how cacao led to the enclosure of common land and paved the way for land accumulation for those who had the capital at this crucial juncture. Cacao as a standing tree crop required extensive land but less effort in cultivation, challenging the equitability of customary associations between work, reward, and ownership that had previously obtained for the Lauje. Lokasi, an awkwardly adopted term for private land, entered the vocabulary of a people whose language previously had no English equivalent for the word “land” (p. 84). Where ownership of land could once be rotated as people took turns to work it, enclosure now became the norm. These enclosures were rarely resisted on the basis of customary laws partly because the cacao crop signposted ownership. Such laws, in any case, have little authority, as they are informal and illegible to the state. These voluntary moves into planting cacao for sale thus tended to have the effect of concentrating land into a few, making it difficult to get it back to grow food.

As a result, Li explains in Chapter four, the ratio between the price of cacao and the price of rice became crucial in determining whether these farmers could survive. In the decade 1998–2009, inequality in the highlands intensified, with some highlanders having no access to land at all. At the same time, other options to survive a crisis, for example, by turning to kin for food or land narrowed dramatically as few grew enough food to sell. It was at this juncture that capitalist relations emerged in earnest since the desperation of farmers and the “erosion of non-commoditized relations” worked in concert (p. 116). The competition that characterized this form of relations meant that the highlanders lost their land, not through land grabs by faceless corporations, but to their neighbors through mechanisms as mundane as land sales or even gambling games where small-scale farmers wagered their meager land in a last bid for fairer fortune.

A lack of jobs in other sectors of the economy exacerbated the problem as Li shows in her final two chapters. There are essentially three strategies for highlanders trapped without land or jobs—loyalty, voice, and exit (p. 150). None of the three offers a true way out since tolerance to inequality led peasants to work harder without seeing results, their isolation made it difficult for them to seek allies to voice out their concerns, and Indonesia’s high but jobless growth trajectory precluded an easy exit. It is on this basis that Li concludes, “progressive settlements aren’t tied to growth but to a commitment for distribution fought for on political terrain” (p. 185).

Li’s study resonates with a growing literature by scholars concerned with growing income inequality and concerns over the potential for the market to self-correct. Economists currently dominate the debate on precisely what these corrective measures should be. Most notably, French economist Piketty (2014) recently advocated for a global system of progressive taxes to prevent wealth from being concentrated in the hands of a few on the basis that such concentration is an inevitable long-term outcome when the rate of return of capital is larger than the rate of economic growth. Li’s ethnographic contribution, however, seems reluctant to join in the search for generalized solutions. It does not advocate for specific policies beyond pointing to a need for direct cash transfers to dispossessed highlanders and a fostering of greater political will among local communities.

The biggest question mark left by this study is where to situate the Lauje within the global economy. Unlike scholars such as Tsing (2005) who focused on global interconnections forged by capitalist networks in remote areas, Li takes a resolutely localized approach. Capital, in her study, appears to flow within an internal circuit; between neighbors and villages within the province. There is perhaps room for future scholars to investigate the potential for change through external capital inflows. Cacao as cash crop had proved disastrous for some Lauje highlanders, but would capital flowing in from other, non-agricultural enterprises break the cycle of land-dispossession or further entrench it? At the end of Li’s study, the economy in the Lauje highlands is undergoing yet another transition—this time away from cacao—and it is unclear what will replace it. Infusions of external capital that had been negligible in this study might yet play a bigger role in Sulawesi in the future.

Overall, this book is a valuable addition to the interrogation into the nature of capitalist relations and its attendant impact. The significance of Li’s contribution lies in connecting a global pattern of inequality to a set of circumstances that is peculiarly Lauje-an, while giving human faces to a trend that has been quiet and insidious. Any system will have its winners and losers; what Li’s book highlights is that the line separating the former from the latter is a thin one indeed. Hard work makes little difference in improving the circumstances of the structurally dispossessed. How could we mitigate the iniquities of the market? Should we? The audience of this monograph—largely winners in the system—will be confronting these issues for years to come.

Faizah Zakaria
History Department, Yale University


Murray Li, Tania. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connections. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Vol. 4, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Craig A. LOCKARD

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

The Eurasian Core and Its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World
Ooi Kee Beng
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2014, 254p.

Scholars from, or based in, Europe, North America, or Australia have shaped most of the writing on world history over the past half century. Few Asians have taken up the challenge of examining the forces and developments, contacts and collisions, connecting and shaping the world’s societies over the centuries. Although it has a somewhat limited focus (mostly Eurasia) and emphasizes the Big Picture rather than details, this innovative book illuminates the always interesting thoughts of a prominent Singapore-based Malaysian scholar, Wang Gungwu, and adds a new and largely Asian perspective through a dialogue with a younger Malaysian historian also working in Singapore, Ooi Kee Beng. In a series of interviews in 2013 the author, Ooi, skillfully posed thoughtful questions to Wang and compiled their extended conversations into this unconventional but intriguing book. The collaboration, which is loosely organized thematically rather than chronologically, should be of interest to specialists on world, European, Indian, Southeast Asian, and especially Central Asian and Chinese history. The result is like a rewarding and intellectually exciting graduate school seminar with a master historian bringing together his vast knowledge to ponder the broad structure of world history over several millennia.

Few historians are more qualified to explore and identify some of the main themes of such a vast topic. Wang Gungwu is one of the most outstanding, prolific, and wide-ranging historians of our generation. His life and career have spanned the tumultuous transition from Western colonialism through World War II, decolonization, the Cold War, and the multipolar globalized world of today. His background is exceptionally cosmopolitan. Born in 1930 in colonial Indonesia to an ethnic Chinese family and raised in British Malaya, Wang was educated at the University of Malaya in Singapore (BA, MA) and School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London (Ph.D.) before his highly successful academic and administrative career at the University of Malaya (History Department Head), Australian National University (Professor and Head of Far Eastern History and Director, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies), Hong Kong University (Vice Chancellor), and National University of Singapore (University Professor). His travels and sojourns have also taken him to many countries around the world. This reviewer first met Wang in the mid-1960s at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, where Wang had helped build a “globalized” History Department with a multinational faculty offering courses on both Southeast Asia and various world regions, a harbinger of the cosmopolitan approach he would demonstrate in some of his writings, including this book. Wang’s numerous books and articles examine diverse topics but especially China’s pre-modern and modern history and politics, Chinese migrations and the resulting diaspora (a concept he dislikes), Malaysian and Singapore history and society, political and economic relations among Asian societies, and Asia’s role in world history.

The book is structured around several key themes that Wang believes were major factors in the broader history of Eurasia, which he identifies (along with North Africa) as the canvas where most of world history was made. This view does not conflict with a lot of Western historical writing on the subject, which also (in the reviewer’s mind, wrongly) devalues Africa and the Americas prior to the past few centuries, but Wang places stronger emphasis on Central Asia and China. Wang views Eurasia as a vast core of irrepressible power and several coastal edges (some historians might use the term fringes)—the agrarian-based west (Europe), south (India), and east (China)—connected by Central Asian horse-riding pastoral nomadic societies whose interaction, friendly or hostile, with inland-looking states to the west and east fostered the emergence of European and Chinese civilizations. He might have said more about the role of Central Asian migrants and invaders in shaping Indian civilization. The conflicts between the core and the edges, especially Atlantic Europe, led to Western mastery of the seas and the Global Age of today. In Wang’s conception, Central Asians were not supplementary to world history but the key factor, which contrasts with the views of many Western historians for whom the region’s role is peripheral and does not extend much beyond the Silk Road, Mongols, and possibly Turks. Central Asia was oriented largely to overland exchange but over time lost power and influence to the coastal edges—Western Europe and China. Wang asserts that only in modern times did the expansion of the Russian Empire destroy the Central Asian core.

In common with many Western scholars, Wang also emphasizes that in more recent centuries “the global is maritime” (p. xiv). The advent of maritime skills and technology made global travel, trade, resource extraction, military conquest, religious spread—indeed, a whole new world—possible. It also undermined the influence of land-oriented continental powers like China and Russia and helped seagoing nations like Britain. As Wang puts it, “No doubt the West was an outlier as well in the face of Eurasian clout, but thanks to its maritime power, it created its own globality. They could not have become a global power were it not for the sea. Mastery of the sea and ruling the waves is the secret of becoming a global power. Now, the Chinese don’t know how to do that” (p. 142). Hence, he concludes, powered by the Industrial Revolution, the maritime global economy closed a chapter in human history. The United States, both a continental and maritime power, moved to the forefront, invulnerable on land and sea, in contrast to China. In his account the Cold War becomes a conflict largely between maritime (U.S., Britain, France) and continental (Russia, China) powers. Some scholars would portray a more complex situation.

Wang claims that the dominance of continental power kept much of Southeast Asia, in his view never a cohesive region, peripheral to continental dynamics, hence, as he oddly puts it, enjoying “a relatively beautiful and peaceful time” (p. 62). One suspects that local peoples may not have perceived their world as lacking conflict, threats, and challenges. Furthermore, he suggests, sea power was never developed on the basis of a very powerful state with the possible exception of Indianized Java. The Malay world was left alone, Wang believes, because the continental powers had little interest in the oceanic peoples. This approach downplays the maritime tradition, albeit largely a commercial but sometimes a military one, in parts of the region (especially the Indonesian archipelago). Wang tends to view maritime power as largely of military rather than economic importance, despite the considerable amount of trade within Southeast Asia as well as with East Asia, South Asia, and even the Middle East.

The eastern Asian and Indian Ocean maritime worlds probably deserve more attention in his account. In other writings he has expressed reservations about the “Asian Mediterranean” concept (Wang 2008; 2012) but does not say much about it here. To Wang the Southeast Asian waters were at best a “semi-Mediterranean” since China made little effort to exercise power there, a Sinocentric view. Nor does he pay much attention to the “Maritime Silk Road” via the Malay Peninsula, Straits of Melaka, and Indian Ocean as a counterpart to the overland Silk Road. Some recent scholarship (Andaya and Andaya 2015; Gunn 2011; Hall 2011; Lockard 2010; Miksic 2013; Paine 2013) suggests the maritime trade route was more significant than earlier studies, mostly focused on the overland route, concluded. Today China, seeking to assert itself and become a maritime power, builds a navy and claims vast stretches of the South China Sea.

Given Wang’s long interest in China, the reader will find many interesting side trips into Chinese history and comparisons between Chinese and Western traditions and mindsets, especially the Confucian legacy which Wang sees as very powerful today and a stark contrast with Western thinking. Western thought, he suggests, is analytical and categorizes everything; religion, philosophy, etc. are all defined and bordered. The Chinese mix and match Confucianism and Buddhism (one might add here Daoism and ancestor worship), making Chinese thought a bit of everything but not a philosophy. It would have been interesting to get his take on the “Great Divergence” debate concerning when and why the West took the lead over China (Pomeranz 2000; Wong 1997). But Chinese have learned to adapt. “Becoming the [world’s] second economic power is the product of the fact that the Chinese have mastered everything that has made Japan and the U.S. wealthy and powerful. What’s left is the question, where is the heart, where is the soul” (p. 192). China’s rise, including growing naval power, shows that they have the latecomer’s advantage. Besides the South China Sea, to maintain its rise China needs to keep the Straits of Melaka, Sunda Straight, and Indonesia neutral and hence open to Chinese shipping. Still, he believes that the United States has better long-term prospects because its continental and maritime reach is secure and because it possesses cyber and air power. “Together, this makes you quite unbeatable. The Chinese are vulnerable on all these fronts” (p. 226).

The book is full of arguments for other historians to consider. Given its genesis in conversations rather than a well-researched manuscript, the structure is not very tight and the narrative sometimes wanders off into often interesting tangents. Wang and Ooi do not explore the detailed history of the wider world; the focus throughout remains on Eurasia although Wang also makes some interesting observations about the United States in the world. There is very little attention to regions such as Africa or Latin America or even South Asia, with most of the examples coming from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Europe. Wang also says surprisingly little about Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and Islam, and tends to downplay Arab and Persian maritime trade. Many historians would place a stronger emphasis on Islam as a major factor in Afro-Eurasian history. There are some other problems with this ambitious effort, including a few questionable assertions or perhaps just slips of the tongue in recorded conversations. For example, it was the Mughal Empire rather than the Sultanate of Delhi that finally collapsed in 1857. Borobodur was a Buddhist temple complex, not a kingdom, in tenth century Java. Wang credits Hindus with destroying Buddhism in India but this is too simple; Muslims, White Huns, and even severe problems and divisions within the Buddhist establishment were also contributing factors. Despite the flaws and some debatable points, this is a stimulating book that may interest academic historians and can be used in a graduate seminar but not a survey course on world history, more a way of thinking about history rather than presenting it. Wang remains an active scholar and role model for many of us. Ooi and Wang should be congratulated for this book, which gives us access to Wang’s learned and provocative thought late in his much-respected and influential career.

Craig A. Lockard
History Department, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay


Andaya, Barbara Watson; and Andaya, Leonard Y. 2015. A History of Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1400–1830. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gunn, Geoffrey C. 2011. History without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000–1800. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Hall, Kenneth R. 2011. A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development, 100–1500. Lanham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lockard, Craig A. 2010. “The Sea Common to All”: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, ca. 1400–1750. Journal of World History 21 (2): 219–247.

Miksic, John N. 2013. Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea 1300–1800. Singapore: NUS Press.

Paine, Lincoln. 2013. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2000. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wang Gungwu. 2012. A Two-Ocean Mediterranean. In Anthony Reid and the Study of the Southeast Asian Past, edited by Geoff Wade and Li Tana, pp. 69–84. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

. 2008. The China Seas: Becoming an Enlarged Mediterranean. In The East Asian “Mediterranean”: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration, edited by Angela Schottenhammer, pp. 7–22. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Wong, R. Bin. 1997. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Vol. 4, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Fiona-Katharina SEIGER

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Migration Revolution: Philippine Nationhood and Class Relations in a Globalized Age
Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr.
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2014, xii+293p.

The central argument made by Filomeno Aguilar in Migration Revolution is that overseas migration, as it is occurring since the 1960s, has brought about important social, cultural, and institutional changes in Philippine society. The migration of Filipinos overseas has become a crucial economic factor because of the enormous remittances that they have generated every year. Migration has accordingly reconfigured class structure, transnationalized social relations, and engendered legal and discursive shifts pertaining to migrants’ political participation and inclusion in the Philippine state. It has also rekindled a sense of nationhood and national identity among migrant Filipinos, contributing to a profound reinterpretation of the national narrative. Migration Revolution offers us a thorough examination of these changes and their consequences.

Contemporary cross-border migration has enabled the Philippine nation to envision itself within a plurality of nations, pushing the Philippine state to reorient its foreign policy and redefined the boundaries of both citizenship and the nation across borders. It has also important emotive implications. The public outcry caused by the execution of Flor Contemplacion in 1995, for example, marked not only a traumatic moment pointing at the vulnerability of overseas labor migrants, but also produced unprecedented surges in Filipino transnationalism.

The book is a collection of essays written by Aguilar over the past decade and a half, mostly during his sojourns outside the Philippines. He focused on Filipino migrants because “the situations described here1) are somehow internal to, albeit not identical with, my own life experiences as one of them” (p. 174). An important strength of the book—and of Aguilar’s scholarship in general—lies in his positionality as an itinerant scholar. Aguilar has generated precious data from his field research among migrant laborers and professionals in Southeast Asia as well as the United States throughout his academic career. This research enabled him to draw important comparisons and analyze migrant transnationalism in its various manifestations. The result is an empirically grounded work that has greatly contributed to the exploration and discussion of migrant transnationalism, challenging some of the findings in academic work on migrant transnationalism that emerged in the early 1990s. For instance Aguilar notes that the same group of migrants is either considered as reneging on patriotism and thus “lost” to the nation, or described as the newfound transnationalists, thus identifying an academic discourse in the South that runs counter to that in the North (p. 175).

The tensions generated by the execution of Contemplacion in Singapore in 1995, where Aguilar was employed at the time, led him to the study of Philippine labor migration. His empathy for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) is strongly evident in his writings, and his interest in labor migration from the angles of social class and nationhood reveals his concerns for questions of status, belonging, and place as they relate to sentiments of nationhood and shame. In exploring these relationships, Aguilar looks back to the nascent nationalism among young ilustrados2) in Europe, drawing an interesting parallel between Jose Rizal’s and his comrades’ reaction to colonial racism and its shaming of the nation-cum-race, and today’s sense of shame experienced by educated middle- and upper-class Filipinos for the nationality they share with low-status OFWs. Underpinning these sentiments is not merely exasperation over being stereotyped, but also the Filipino elite’s discontent with having lost control over the international image of the nation.

While labor migrants are being labeled as “shameful export” (p. 87) by the more privileged segments of the Philippine diaspora, they have been lauded as the nation’s new heroes by the state by virtue of their enormous economic contributions to the national economy. Forming a pool of affordable, flexible labor and filling in the needs for care in advanced economies, OFWs have enabled the expansion and subsistence of a middle-class in both receiving and sending countries. Despite their low status origins, numerous OFWs have turned into petty capitalist landowners and entrepreneurs back home because of their savings and investments.

This “progress” has led OFWs to simultaneously occupy two contradictory class positions: that of migrant proletarians overseas, and petty capitalists back home. Thus, Aguilar argues that class structures and class relations in a globalized world cannot be understood without reference to state borders and national frames. Rather, the social structures of societies are intertwined, with the migrant worker entangled in these transnational class relations.

While the class structures of migrant sending and migrant receiving societies connect beyond borders, citizenship regimes continue to regulate individuals’ legal status and access to various rights and privileges within a given territory. Receiving societies have made use of the presence of the immigrant “Other” to underscore the boundaries of the nation and to reinforce sentiments of national belonging among their citizens.

Simultaneously, globalization has profoundly transformed the concept of citizenship, and thereby also the rules defining formal membership in a given state. The criteria for categorizing people as either “aliens” or citizens have changed over time, due to mutable ideas of who belongs to the nation but also because of pragmatic state interests. State pragmatism has enabled overseas Filipinos to hold dual-citizenship, and the variability of categories has considerably changed to ideologically validate the formal inclusion of overseas Filipinos.

Mass migration has thus led to the reconceptualization of the nation beyond territorial borders, but also allowed the state to bring overseas Filipinos back into its fold by granting them dual citizenship. The discursive and formal inclusion of overseas Filipinos also contained hopes and assumptions about their economic investments and participation in the politics of their “homeland.” Unfortunately, the invitation to become politically involved has had very few takers ever since voting rights were granted to OFWs in early 2003.

As a result of this, Aguilar argues that the assumption that all migrants engage in transnational practices or maintain transnational ties is a fallacy. Rather, transnationalism still needs to be proven. In investigating this, scholars must note that transnational ties vary in nature, with numerous migrants disinterested in political participation from afar. It is better to examine the issue by recognizing that there exist multiple and contradictory visions of the nation among migrants and non-migrants. One of Aguilar’s original contributions in this book is thus the discussion and comparison of elite-nationalism and the discourses by public intellectuals over the transnationalism of different groups of Filipino migrants overseas.

However, the book says very little about the impact of technological advancement in communications, and the improved availability of devices that enable real-time updates and information exchange though the World Wide Web. Online media has become an important element in the study of migrant transnationalism as it introduces new possibilities for negotiating family relationships across borders (cf. Madianou and Miller 2012), and provides new ways of constructing and reinforcing a sense of national identity among migrants (cf. Ignacio 2004).

Moreover, Aguilar’s brief examination of Filipino-foreign offspring remains limited to a particular group of Filipino descendants, many of whom have North-American or European parents, and who seem to epitomize today’s mestizo and his/her association with modernity and privileged lives. However, Philippine state policies and individual initiatives have led to affective and sexual relationships which produced offspring who are regarded with greater ambivalence. For example, children of Filipina entertainers and Japanese men have been condescendingly called “the products of summer flings and mostly out of wedlock relations . . .” (Amor 1992) when their births were first picked up as an issue by journalists, or “one-night babies” by the director of one NGO (Kyodo News Int. 1992). Since 2005, the migration of Filipina entertainers to Japan has starkly declined. However, the lingering association of this migration with sex-work continues to affect a number of Japanese-Filipinos who report about scathing comments by classmates and about being bullied for having a Japanese father (DAWN 2010).

These reactions go back to the issue of shame that Aguilar explores in chapter 3. The children born of this “shameful” migration (to Filipinas who worked in Japan’s entertainment districts) are viewed as evidence of the nation’s feebleness to foreign money and power. The children of former entertainers and Japanese men also “haunt the nation” (p. 197), but in ways far different from how Filipino-foreign offspring born under other circumstances are regarded.

A singular achievement of this well-organized work is it’s synthesizing of the many strands arising from the profound changes that followed from the massive emigration of Filipinos. To someone who has studied these issues, some of its arguments are not entirely new. But for readers with limited familiarity with the Philippines, Migration Revolution is a major introductory text to deepen their understanding of the complicated relationship between migration and nationalism.

Fiona-Katharina Seiger


Amor, P. 1992. ‘Japinos’- Emerging Social Problem in RP. Manila Standard, October 18, 1992, S. 4.

Development Action for Women Network (DAWN). 2010. We Are Your Children, Too. Creative Journeys of DAWN’s Japanese-Filipino Children Members, edited by C. G. Nuqui and C. R. Arboleda. Manila: DAWN.

Ignacio, Emily Noelle. 2004. Building Diaspora: Filipino Cultural Community Formation on the Internet. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Kyodo News Int. 1992. Program for Abandoned ‘Japinos’ Launched. June 29, 1992.

Madianou, Mirca; and Miller, Daniel. 2012. Migration and New Media: Transnational Families and Polymedia. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

1) Here, Aguilar writes about migrant Filipinos in the United States and Filipino contract workers in the Asia-Pacific region.

2) The ilustrados were a group of Filipino intellectuals during the Spanish colonial period in the late nineteenth century.



Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Indonesian Women and Local Politics: Islam, Gender and Networks in Post-Suharto Indonesia
Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2015, xxi+246p.

Indonesia began its political reform almost 15 years ago following the collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian administration in 1998. As in many other democratizing countries, increasing gender equality in government became an important reform agenda in Indonesia and greater democratic freedom and increased demand for gender equality were believed to move women’s issues to the center of social policymaking. The newly democratic Indonesian government introduced Law No. 31/2002 on Political Parties and Law No. 12/2003 on General Elections, as part of an “affirmative action” policy which set quotas for women’s representation. These two laws were later revised into Law No. 2/2008 and Law No. 10/2008 regulating women’s wider participation in politics and obliging political parties to nominate at least one woman in every three candidates to run in legislative elections.

To date, women’s representation in the national legislature has increased from only 8.8% during the Suharto administration to 17.3% in 2014. This means there are now 97 women out of a total of 560 members in the national parliament. In addition, Law No. 32/2004 on Direct Elections has lifted structural barriers to women running for leadership positions in local elections. This Law has helped a number of women to become district Mayors (Regent), Vice Governors, and Governors. In Java, the most populated island in Indonesia, there were five women elected as Regent, one Vice-Governor, and one Governor as the result of the 2005 direct election (p. 18).

Yet, regardless of the increase in women’s representation in government, Indonesian women continue to receive unfair treatment and are discriminated against in many social policies and practices. To name a few, the introduction of sharia-based regional regulations in the Province of Aceh and in 52 districts and municipalities since 2001 has expanded discrimination against women and limited women’s freedom of expression (Bush 2008, 176). Misogynist policies continue to be put in place. In 2013, the National Ulama Council (MUI), for example, supported the initiative of some Regents to require female students to undertake a virginity test in order to get into high schools (Kompas 2013). Meanwhile, Indonesia’s Military and the National Police continue to require female candidates to pass virginity tests before joining (Russin 2015). It was only recently that Indonesia’s Constitutional court rejected an application made by women activists to increase the marriageable age for girls from 16 years old, as stated in Article 7(1) of the 1974 Marriage Law, to 18 (Sciortino 2015). The legislative review was initiated due to the increasing risks of unwanted pregnancies, sexual disease, maternal health hazards, and violence as girls at the age of 16 are not mentally and physically ready to enter marriages. Women and human rights activists argue that this continuing discrimination against women is the result of many contributing factors, from Indonesia’s misogynist socio-cultural tradition and poor gender-based policy making to a lack of women’s representation in government.

The issue of whether or not an increase in women’s representation in government will lead to the advancement of women’s issues, in fact, has become a subject of scholarly debate among political scientists. The debate centers on the role of democracy in improving women’s access to political positions, thereby enabling the women elected to pass more women-friendly policies (Fallon et al. 2012). Researching women’s representation in the legislature and its impact on advancing women’s issues into women’s friendly policies in the United States, Osborn (2012, 1, 6) argues that while many people expect women elected to public office to address women’s policy concerns and represent women’s needs, it is, in fact, political parties that work in shaping and influencing women legislators in addressing their agenda and producing policies that affect them positively.

Indonesian Women and Local Politics: Islam, Gender and Networks in Post-Suharto Indonesia discusses at length Javanese Muslim women’s ascendency to power in post-Suharto Indonesia. The book is a product of the author’s PhD research and is an attempt to contribute to the scholarly discussion on the place of women in the public sphere and women’s rights in Muslim societies. In particular, it attempts to contribute to the wider discussion on women’s political leadership. It tries to unpack the cultural, structural, and institutional barriers that hinder women in gaining public office. With the majority of Indonesia’s population being Muslim, the author argues that Islamization and modernization have changed Indonesian society’s gender perception towards women. The author choses to focus her research on Java because a considerable number of Javanese Muslim women, she argues, have been successful in taking public offices by becoming Regents and Vice-Governor between the period of 2005 to 2010 (p. 18).

Given the broader context of democratization and issues surrounding Islamization, the book’s attempt at answering important questions around the role of Islam and gender under the victory of female Javanese politicians is a timely and valuable contribution to Indonesian scholarship. The author uses the Javanese concept of power and the local conception of women’s role in public life when explaining women’s ascendency to power in a Javanese context. Apart from Islam and gender, the book also scrutinizes how female politicians use their male networks and their familial ties with male authority to help them win elections (p. 16). This book uses four constructs to explore women’s increase political participation at local level: Islam, gender, networks, and familial ties.

The book consists of seven chapters. The first three provide overviews of the research background, methodology, and the theoretical framework on Islamization, democratization, and cultural conceptions of gender and leadership. Chapter 2 discusses Indonesia’s political reform, including the introduction of national legislation that favors women’s participation in politics, and explores the socio-political context of the emergence of women’s leadership at the local level. In Chapter 3 the author considers the role of Islamization and democratization in changing societal attitudes towards women’s public roles. It discusses how two mainstream Muslim organizations, the Nahdlhatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, have continued to shape public discussion and perception of the role of women in public and in leadership. It highlights the different public responses towards female leadership at local and national levels by looking at the debate over, and rejection of, the nomination of Megawati Sukarnoputri as Indonesia’s first female President in 1999 (pp. 62–63, 177).

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 discuss specifically three female leaders: Rustriningsih and Siti Qomariyah in Central Java, and Ratna Ani Lestari in East Java. Each chapter reviews the particular socio-religious and political landscapes that shape the political opportunities for these women to gain power. The discussion demonstrates how female candidates use Islam and their identity as women to gain popular support. There is also lengthy discussion of the socio-educational background of the women, their level of religiosity, networks with male politicians and religious leaders, their attachment to women’s organizations, and their agenda on advancing women’s issues. Each chapter also provides an overview on the particularity of the pressing issues that confront women in the respective regions.

Chapter 4 on Rustriningsih highlights the candidate’s strong family background in politics and her close attachment with the nationalist and secular political party, the PDIP. The chapter demonstrates that Rustriningsih won and became the Vice-Governor due to strong PDIP support. It also details how “religious symbols” such as the headscarf and the tactic of approaching religious leaders from the Nahdlhatul Ulama were used in order to win Muslim support.

Chapter 5 on Siti Qomariyah presents the interesting story of how a woman with no previous political background and experience became Regent. Her status as the daughter of a respected NU Kyai led the Muslimat NU, the women’s wing of NU, to nominate Siti Qomariyah to run in the election for district Major in Pekalongan. The fact that she gained her higher education from an Islamic higher educational institution increased her religious profile, thus securing the nomination of PKB, an Islamic political party that is strongly affiliated with the Nahdlhatul Ulama and the majority party in the local parliament. Her family’s strong affiliation with NU helped her to win the full support of NU Kyais.

Chapter 6 on Ratna Ani Lestari shows that her rise to power was due to the support she received from her husband, who is a member of PDIP and was a former Regent in the Province of Bali. Despite having no religious background, Lestari made efforts to use Islamic symbols such as wearing a headscarf and approaching religious leaders to gain support.

Interestingly, the author reveals that none of these female leaders had any previous attachment to women’s organizations and had no knowledge about issues that women face at the local level. As a result, none of these female leaders had a clear social policy agenda to advance women’s interests. In the case of Siti Qomariyah, the author argues that her nomination was mainly because the Nahdlhatul Ulama wanted to take control of both the legislature and the executive branch of the local government (p. 114).

Generally speaking, the book provides an in-depth analysis of the changing political landscape, Islam’s view on women, and changing perceptions on gender. These aspects, the author argues, provide women the opportunity to take up public roles. The changing public mood towards male leadership is also a factor that leads voters to look for alternative candidates. The appeal that women would be less corrupt and could make better local leaders also helped women candidates to win votes.

The book demonstrates that getting women into local leadership positions may be claimed as an achievement in Indonesia’s process of democratization. But the book clearly demonstrates that getting women candidates into public offices does not necessarily mean that women’s interests receive better policy attention. It possibly raises the question as to whether putting women who have no previous engagement with women’s issues into power may have contributed to the government’s ongoing failure in addressing women’s issues and in introducing women-friendly policies.

The book clearly demonstrates that the political success of these women was due to their political affiliation and support from political parties, however, the author does not make any attempt to discuss the political parties’ platform regarding women’s issues. It would be helpful if the book also unpacked the platform of PDIP and PKB, the two parties mentioned that strongly supported two of the subjects, in regards to women’s issues. Further discussion about political parties’ platforms on women’s issues might help deter readers from feeling that women and religion are merely being hijacked by male politicians, in a country where the majority of the population are Muslims and where women constitute 55% of Indonesian voters. This book forces us to think that Indonesia’s democracy should not only able to put women in power but should also enable women leaders to exercise authority to advance more women-friendly policies so that Indonesia will progress towards gender equality in education, health care, work, the family, and the public sphere.

Dina Afrianty
Institute for Religion, Politics, and Society, Australian Catholic University


Bush, Robin. 2008. Regional Sharia Regulations in Indonesia: Anomaly or Symptom? In Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, edited by Greg Fealy and Sally White, pp. 174–191. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Fallon, Kathleen M.; Swiss, Liam; and Viterna, Jocelyn. 2012. Resolving the Democracy Paradox: Democratization and Women’s Legislative Representation in Developing Nations, 1975 to 2009. American Sociological Review 77(3): 380–408.

Kompas. 2013. MUI: Tes Keperawanan Perlu Masuk Undang-undang [Indonesia Ulama Council: Virginity test needs to be regulated into law]. Regional, August 20, 2013, accessed June 22, 2015,

Osborn, Tracy L. 2012. How Women Represent Women: Political Parties, Gender, and Representation in the State Legislatures. Oxford University Press Scholarship Online.

Russin, Markus. 2015. Virginity Test: Indonesia’s Institutionalized Misogyny. The Jakarta Post: Opinion, May 30, 2015.

Sciortino, Rosalia. 2015. Insight: Constitutional Court Fails to Give Girls Better Protection. The Jakarta Post, June 20, 2015, accessed June 22, 2015,



Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Taming People’s Power: The EDSA Revolutions and Their Contradictions
Lisandro E. Claudio
Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2013, 240p.

People power is the foundationalist myth of the ruling Aquino regime which began with the presidency of Corazon (“Cory”) C. Aquino who replaced the fallen dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 and which continues under the presidency of her son, Benigno (“Noynoy”) S. Aquino, III, which will end in mid-2016. The Aquinos and their “yellow” crowd elite supporters claim legitimacy based on a divinely sanctioned popular uprising against an evil dictator re-establishing a righteous democracy. “People power” also gained international prominence as one of the first televised revolutions, with the plucky Cory Aquino defeating the wily dictator Marcos, leading to a heroic transition to democracy. That this piece of political folklore has lost appeal for most Filipinos who remain poor and are now often disillusioned with this once new political order is evidenced by the dwindling crowds at the annual official celebration of people power. The people themselves seem to have abandoned the idea of “people power.”

No recent book captures the ambiguous legacy of people power better than the work of the young Ateneo historian Lisandro E. Claudio. What Claudio has done in this book is quite extraordinary. He systematically distinguishes two “discursive formations,” the official, “yellow” narrative and the anti-people power “National Democratic” discourse of the communist left (later in the study it becomes evident that he analyzes a third discursive alternative as well: the subaltern perspective of laborers on the Aquino-Cojuangco owned Hacienda Luisita). Claudio then examines how these discourses are literally “monumentalized” and the message this political architecture is trying to convey. These “material commemorations” of the anti-Marcos struggle culminating in the mass uprising against Marcos that he examines are, on the one hand, the quasi-official shrine of the Shrine of Mary Queen of Peace, popularly known as the “Our Lady EDSA shrine” and the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes) of the left.

Beyond this Claudio then undertakes an ambitious and revealing case study of how “people power” is viewed in Hacienda Luisita, the great plantation of the landlord-politician Aquino-Cojuangco dynasty. But he also shows how the role of the communist left is viewed ambivalently by the sugar plantation workers, many of whom were caught up in violence initiated by the strike breaking landlords but also instrumentalized by the left.

The book is well written in a sophisticated, but intelligible “post-modern” style, with key theoretical insights effectively used to clarify Claudio’s discursive approach to recent Philippine history. The result is a study full of more insights about recent Philippine politics than any other I have read in past decade. Claudio constructs a theoretical framework for the book drawn from “memory studies” to reconstruct the “people power narrative.” He invokes Foucault’s “regime of truth,” a “provisional . . . product of the capillary movement of knowledge-power—but may nevertheless coalesce into identifiable discursive formations” (pp. 5–6). Not a mere top-down ideology like the authoritarian developmentalist one of the Marcos era, the mainstream people power discourse was created by the Church hierarchy, middle class activists, big business, and traditional politicians. But Claudio is not content with just analyzing the “official story” which deemphasizes the role played by ordinary Filipinos who overthrew Marcos in favor of the God-given-miracle explanation of EDSA (the major Manila street after which “people power” is often known in the Philippines). Rather, he employs a “multivocal” approach to this narrative, focusing in particular on the relationship with class interests and the way the popular uprising against the Marcos regime is narrated. Not a static approach, Claudio shows the people power narrative evolved from a symbol of national unity seen to have overcome class differences to a divisive elitist discourse that justified the elite-led overthrow of the populist president Joseph Estrada in 2001 in what was dubbed “EDSA dos” or “people power II.” Estrada was an elected president loved by poor voters who rallied to his cause after his overthrow by what was essentially an elitist putsch. This led to a third people power event that nearly overthrew the government of president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who had replaced the deposed Estrada.

It is not surprising that Claudio concludes competing narratives of people power are shaped by class interests. The ruling Aquino regime and the strategic groups that generally back it—big business, the Church, “civil society” activists, and the military hierarchy—have turned the popular uprising against Marcos into a “ruling state ideology,” as Claudio shows. By contrast, the exploited plantation workers in Hacienda Luisita have challenged this elite narrative with a counter-hegemonic discourse which usually goes unnoticed both because it is localized and from the lower classes. Claudio, who very frankly explores his own biographical ties to the left, shows how difficult it is to classify the leftist discourse in class terms. While clearly aimed at achieving social liberation, it is also a discourse which obscures the poor as actors independent of a communist party that always claims to know what is in their best interest, revealing the left’s own hegemonic ambitions. This emphasis on class position makes Claudio’s contribution to memory studies generally and our understanding of the people power narrative in the Philippines in particular unusually valuable.

When one considers the major contributions to post-Marcos understandings of Philippine politics, the predominance of interpretations which stress what Benedict Anderson famously called “cacique democracy” is striking. On the first reading, Claudio’s study appears to be part of this genre (and he does defend Anderson’s categorization against elite Philippine critics who mythologize people power as a symbol of national unity). But Claudio’s position goes beyond this anti-oligarchical perspective by pointing to the evolving nature of an elite discourse that sometimes very effectively “covers up” class interests, capable of winning widespread popular support for its project of democratic and anti-corruption reforms. This was of course evident in not only Cory Aquino’s defeat of Marcos, but also in her son, Noynoy Aquino’s easy victory in the 2010 presidential election in which he effectively revived the people power narrative. Claudio shows why subaltern perspectives such as those of the workers of Hacienda Luisita are so easily ignored. But he also points to the limits of a left discourse which has its own agenda. (One limitation of the study is the relative neglect of a fourth discourse—the “national populist” appeals made by movie star politicians Estrada in the 1998 and his close Fernando Poe, Jr. in the 2004 election.) Philippine politics is more complex than the “elites versus the masses” dichotomy of the left and the “national unity” narrative of the rightist pro-Aquino forces, with a discursive “truth” to be sought somewhere in between. There is no recent better guide to these ambiguities than this excellent study.

Mark R. Thompson
Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC), City University of Hong Kong


Vol. 4, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Duncan McCARGO

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

“Good Coup” Gone Bad: Thailand’s Political Developments since Thaksin’s Downfall
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, ed.
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2014, xv+290p.

Come back, General Sonthi—all is forgiven! The 2006 coup may have turned bad, but compared with the 2014 coup it now looks positively benign. This useful edited volume appeared just in time to serve as a primer for what went wrong in the wake of the previous military seizure of power. But apart from one chapter on the military, the focus of the book is not on the coup itself, but on a range of related actors and issues. The book is divided into four sections of two or three chapters: the impact of the coup on Thailand’s political landscape; the military and the monarchy; the emergence of yellow and red politics; and crises of legitimacy. In a sparse field, the volume is an invaluable addition to reading lists (I have already assigned it to my students), but some chapters are stronger than others, and several of them go over ground that the same authors have already covered in previous writings. To my mind the first two sections are much the most useful, and Thongchai Winichakul’s chapter on monarchy and anti-monarchy stands out as the centerpiece of the book.

Thongchai’s argument can be distilled into one provocative and important assertion: the Thai monarchy, far from serving as a source of stability, lies at the core of the country’s persistent instability and regular recourse to mass bloodshed, as seen in the four violent crackdowns of 1973, 1976, 1992, and 2010. Offering a brilliant exegesis of a provocative speech by redshirt leader Nattawut Saikua in 2008 about the contrast between the earth and the sky, Thongchai demonstrates how a combination of hyper-royalism and suppression has helped produce a large-scale “awakening” of anti-monarchist sentiments. Most dangerously of all, widespread popular denial about the problematic role of the monarchy and the impending succession means that many Thais are living in a kind of alternate reality. However dark the period since September 2006 has been for Thailand’s politics, worse is yet to come.

Thongchai’s paper is bookended by two others: James Ockey on the military, and David Streckfuss on Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws (on which Streckfuss is the world’s leading authority). Streckfuss provides detailed evidence of the steep climb in Article 112 cases brought since the coup, and especially since the arrival of the unelected Abhisit Vejjajiva government in late 2008. Citing historical examples from France and Germany, Streckfuss argues that heavy-handed use of such laws undermines the legitimacy of the monarchy and so runs precisely counter to their stated aim of protecting the royal institution. The chapter should whet readers’ appetites to tackle Streckfuss’s 2011 book Truth on Trial in Thailand, in which he explores these arguments at much greater length. Ockey’s chapter argues that developments such as the assassination by a fellow soldier of pro-Thaksin Major General Khattiya Sawasdiphol at the height of the 2010 redshirt demonstrations illustrated deep-seated divisions in the Royal Thai Army. Ockey asserts that the politicization of the military into color-coded factions has left the institution “broken, divided and dangerous both to itself and to others” (p. 72). This is a bold claim: to date, the latest coup has shown the capacity of the Eastern Tigers/Queen’s Guard faction to dominate the army and subordinate internal contestation to the will of the top brass. Ockey’s calls for the “restoration of military corporateness” suggest that such corporateness genuinely existed in earlier decades. It might instead be argued that the Thai military has always been profoundly politicized—in other words, that it was broken from birth.

Federico Ferrara offers some historical context for the arguments advanced in these chapters. In a highly persuasive article, he suggests that “the recent recourse to bullets and emergency rule” (p. 38) and the associated rise in Article 112 cases are signs of desperation, as the yet-to-be ancien regime experiences a sharply declining moral authority. As of this writing, the themes of Thainess, Thai-style democracy, and unity in hierarchy are very much back in fashion—at least among the alarming numerous supporters of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and the current junta. That Thailand is, in Ferrara’s words, “running on empty” can scarcely be disputed. But I remain to be convinced that the future of the monarchy itself hangs in the balance.

The later chapters of the book address various additional perspectives on Thailand’s politics. Michael Nelson’s discussion of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the “Vote No” campaign makes a couple of important points: the anti-Thaksin movement was not synonymous with the PAD, and with or without the PAD, the “societal infrastructure and its political culture” (p. 160) was still in place for a resurgence of anti-Yingluck Shinawatra protests. The emergence of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in late 2013 proved Nelson completely correct, and was to prove the undoing of the Yingluck government. Nick Nostitz’s chapter on the redshirt movement provides a useful summary of his views, though there are few surprises for those who follow his regular online commentary pieces on these issues. Andrew Walker’s article “Is Peasant Politics in Thailand Civil?” answers its own question in his second sentence: “No.” He goes on to provide a helpful sketch of the arguments he has made at greater length in his important 2012 book Thailand’s Political Peasants.

The book concludes with two chapters ostensibly focused on crises of legitimacy. In his discussion of the bloody Southern border conflict, Marc Askew fails to engage with the arguments of those who see the decade-long violence as a legitimacy crisis for the Thai state, and omits to state his own position on this central debate. He rightly concludes that “the South is still an insecure place” (p. 246), but neglects to explain exactly why. Pavin Chachavalpongpun offers a final chapter on Thai-Cambodia relations, but does not add a great deal to his brilliant earlier essay on Preah Vihear as “Temple of Doom,” which remains the seminal account of that tragi-comic inter-state conflict.

I would have liked more gender balance among the contributors: there are a number of female scholars who could and should have been included. Overall, this is an extremely valuable book which will be widely read and assigned to students.

Duncan McCargo
School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds


Vol. 4, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Faisal CHAUDHRY

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3



Between Dissent and Power: The Transformation of Islamic Politics in the Middle East and Asia
Khoo Boo Teik, Vedi Hadiz, and Yoshihiro Nakanishi, eds.
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, xv+298p., index.

The key intervention this timely volume makes is to question whether political agitation that speaks in the name of Islam is best understood in terms of the Islamic content its exponents profess. In this respect, the titular choice to describe the volume as being about “Islamic” politics is no coincidence. To the contrary, it splits the difference between assuming that no more than a politics of actors who happen to be “Muslim” merits attention and assuming that their politics are overdetermined by Islamist predilections/pronouncements. At the same time, as the editors’ fine introductory chapter makes clear, the choice is also meant to provoke. This is because the collection prioritizes what the editors suggest are heretofore neglected political economy and institutional (political, sociological) perspectives on understanding recent events in the Muslim majority countries the volume surveys. Those countries—which include Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Malaysia, Pakistan, Algeria, and Indonesia—comprise the basis for the volume’s nine case study chapters. The choice of case studies is governed by the volume’s concern with tracing how Islamic politics has oscillated between “dissent” and “power,” especially in the aftermath of the Arab spring.

After making requisite mention of the fact that the volume is intended to treat the Islamic character of politics in the places it surveys neither as “an epiphenomenon of economics” nor “the mere expression of religion,” in their introductory chapter the editors instead proceed to highlight a series of so-called institutional factors. These include, first, capitalist development, economic crises, and their social consequences; second, the relative strengths of regimes, parties, and social movements; and, third, the shifting bases and constituencies of support and opposition (p. 4). Before proceeding to the nine case studies, the two chapters following the editors’ introduction helpfully elaborate on the key crosscutting perspectives the volume seeks to use to illuminate relevant patterns and contrasts. In Chapter 2 (“Political Economy and the Explanation of the Islamic Politics in the Contemporary World”) Richard Robison contrasts cultural and ideological approaches to understanding “politics and society in Islamic countries” with several others (p. 21). Most important among these are the various strands of the political economy perspective Robison advocates. According to Robison, whether in its radicalized or party electoral form Islamic politics is thus best viewed in light of the confluence between class dynamics (e.g. by paying attention to phenomena like the “declining petty bourgeoisie”) and shifting state structures (e.g. by paying attention to the move from “market authoritarian rule” to “the embrace of modern market”). Chapter 3 by Vedi Hadiz (“The Organizational Vehicles of Islamic Political Dissent: Social Bases, Genealogies and Strategies”) complements Robison’s chapter nicely. Not only does it bring the volume closer to the ground of how Islamic politics is actually undertaken, it also still focuses on developing a set of generalized explanatory resources to clarify the particular approach the volume as a whole means to pursue. Noting that the titular “organizational vehicles” the chapter is focused on vary greatly from full fledged political parties to small and isolated cells engaged in terrorist activity, Hadiz emphasizes that the vehicles of “Islamic dissent” must be understood in relation to “transformations in the social bases of Islamic politics” over the last half century. Hadiz contrasts the shared desire expressed by many parties for “a variant of capitalism” (p. 47) with the rise of “organizing from the fringes” when such mainstream Islamic forces “fail to build coalitions that can plausibly challenge for state power through the formal political arena” (p. 50).

Yasuyuki Matsunaga’s fourth chapter turns to the first case study on Iran (“Islamic Dissent in Iran’s Full-Fledged Islamic Revolutionary State”). Matsunaga’s main goal is to treat political dissent “relationally” as a form “of adversary relations between sets of contending actors” (p. 66). More specifically his focus is on what he calls “post-revivalist” forms of Islamic dissent that were highly visible in Iran before the end of the Islamic Revolution’s second decade (in the late 1990s). After providing relevant context, he looks especially closely at Mohsen Kadivar’s brand of post-revivalist Islamic dissent and its rejection of the connection between politics and religion. Chapter 5 by Jenny White is entitled “Muslimhood and Post-Islamist Power: The Turkish Example.” Like most of the country studies White’s is also principally a narrative-based account of contemporary Islamic political agitators (in Turkey) as told from the standpoint of recent events, with a healthy dose of broader contextualizing discussion of earlier periods as well. The main analytical intervention of the chapter is to draw out several “principles” from the Turkish case that may be relevant to Arab countries as well. These include the following: a) that Islam undergoes a transformation as a defining identity once “enmeshed in the democratic process in the context of a globalized economy”; b) that parties embracing a “privatized Islam” are best able to expand constituencies; c) that gaining official power tends to involve “the loss of the social movement aspect of earlier party incarnations”; and d) that the introduction of greater conservatism or religiosity into government and secular state institutions is not inevitable due to the “anxiety and push-back” it inspires among secularists (pp. 90–91).

Housam Darwisheh’s contribution in Chapter 6 looks at the “The Political Transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.” The chapter’s informative narrative takes the reader up to the present. Analytically, the chapter is connected to the volume’s wider themes through its conclusion that revolutionary forces in Egypt did not ultimately sour against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood after the Tahrir Square uprising due to the fear that it would institute an “Islamic state.” Rather it was the Brotherhood’s “tendency to act unilaterally” and its perceived attempt to create “a shift form pluralist, inclusive politics towards a monopoly of power” that made its regime suspect (p. 130). Chapter 7 by Nadia Marzouki looks at “Islamist Ideals and Governing Realities” through examining “Nahda’s Project and the Constraint of Adaptation in Post-Revolution Tunisia.” Over and above the narrative survey Marzouki provides, the chapter focuses on the ideas of Rached Ghannouchi, Nahda’s leader, emphasizing the concept of the civil state (dawla madaniyya) through which he has argued for a compatibility between Islam and democracy. The chapter takes the reader up to the end of Nahda’s first coalition government in 2013.

Shoko Watanabe’s chapter comes next and is entitled “Reforming the Regime or Reforming the Dissidents? The Gradualist Dissent of Islamic Movements in Morocco.” Observing that Morocco’s Islamic movements have been distinguished by their “gradualist’ nature” (p. 154), Watanabe’s looks at events over the last several decades draw attention to the resilience of the so-called Makhzan structure of Morocco’s deep state. Watanabe emphasizes how the central state has thus remained the dominant player in Moroccan politics through a “divide and conquer” approach to Islamic movements. The state’s use of strategic “inclusion” and “exclusion” of such forces, Watanabe argues, is more significant than any dichotomy between “moderate” and “radical” Islamic forces (p. 171).

Khoo Boo Teik’s chapter is the first of the case studies that takes the reader outside of the worlds of the Middle East and North Africa and looks at “Social Transformation and the Reinventions of Parti Islam in Malaysia.” The first main topic he considers is the political economic forces underlying social transformation in Malaysia, here emphasizing that the Parti Islam SeMalyasia (PAS) did not arise as a response to “failed developmentalism” as in many other Muslim majority countries. From here the chapter goes on to consider the social origins of Islamic politics and provides a narrative of the PAS’s oscillation from the early 1980s between “strident Islamism and fortuitous religiosity.” The author emphasizes that it was only after the early 2000s—after the retirement of Prime Minister Mahathir—that anger at the ruling party and oligarchic character of the country’s politics allowed the PAS to finally break through (by 2006–07). As Khoo details, this breakthrough took place through a “confluence of dissent” and a larger ethos of Reformasi that the PAS was then able to capitalize on.

The last three chapters both continue to keep us outside of the Middle East and North Africa with discussion of Pakistan and Indonesia and also bring us back to the region with the chapter on Algeria. Chapter 10 by Yoshihiro Nakanishi is entitled “Political Fragmentation and Islamic Politics in Pakistan.” Nakanishi starts by providing a primarily contextualizing historical survey of the genesis of contemporary Islamic politics in Pakistan. The chapter then proceeds to focus most intently on the period since 2000, while also including a section elaborating on “the weakness” of Islamic parties that brings the reader back to Pakistan’s origins in 1947. Other sections consider the role of Islam as both security tool and threat after the coup of General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and the ensuing war on terror years as well as a consideration of the relationship between social change, Islam, and political dissent. The chapter concludes open-endedly, noting that “current Islamization” will not necessarily bring about a radical transformation into a state wholly governed by “Islamic principles like Shariah” even if, at the same time, the potency of Islamic militant groups is likely only to increase.

The chapter bringing us back westward is Alejandro Colás’ and is entitled “A Perverse Symbiosis: The State, Islam and Political Dissent in Contemporary Algeria.” Colás frames the country’s experience as exceptional given the “circular quality to” its history of Islam and political dissent. Colás thus emphasizes how Algeria continues to be run by “a narrow military-bureaucratic oligarchy which has staked its survival on the distribution of hydrocarbon wealth to curry political favor form supporters and contenders alike” (p. 244). It is for these reasons that Colás suggests the regime has been able to “snuff out” the ripple effects of the Arab Spring. In keeping with these claims, the chapter’s narrative focuses on the last 20 years of Algeria’s history, in the wake of the defeat of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). In the wake of the FIS’ suppression, Colás argues that the Bouteflika regime has been able to successfully deploy “co-option strategies” to “incorporate aspects of the Islamist programme and some of its ‘accomodationist’ personnel into the bricolage of the regime itself” (p. 244).

Ian Wilson’s final chapter brings us back eastward, turning to Indonesia, and is entitled “Morality Racketeering: Vigilantism and Populist Islamic Militancy in Indonesia.” Wilson discusses “Islamic vigilante groups” in the country and emphasizes how rather than seeking to overturn or radically transform the state they have pursued “a socially conservative ‘anti-vice’ and ‘anti-apostasy’ agenda against perceived liberal excesses” (p. 248). The chapter’s empirical focus is on the Defenders of Islam Front (FPI) as well as certain other vigilante groups in Jakarta. Wilson argues that theirs is a “pragmatic Islamic militancy” that appeals to the urban poor as its most active membership (p. 249). Wilson’s narrative reviews the rise of vigilantism by situating it in the local contexts of post-authoritarian Indonesia after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. The chapter goes on to discuss the FPI’s history, relationship to other Islamic organizations, and the class tensions that it has been able to feed on.

As a closing chapter, Wilson’s is another that gives voice to the volume’s overall concern with questioning how important normative Islamic ideas (or, simply, ideas adverting to be drawn from the normative Islamic tradition) are to real politics. Certainly, there can be no doubt that such a view is refreshing and even necessary when considered relative to so much popular and even academic discussion. Clearly, it is untenable (and, perhaps, suspect in still other ways) for commentators to become as selectively idealist as they often do when it comes to understanding politics and politicized violence in the Muslim world. That said, as vital as any such corrective must be, it is also limited by its own will to correct. After all, there would be nothing to correct if Islamic politics was, indeed, no more than the politics of Muslim actors. A more head-on interrogation of how the practice of dissent and power in the Muslim-majority world has, does, and will likely continue to be “determined” also by the Islamic or purportedly Islamic content of its practitioners’ ideas remains necessary. While no single edited volume can address all issues, it would be a mistake to imagine that the volume under review—as valuable as it is—suffers only from the limits of space. So too, the reader should remain aware, are certain limits imposed, and relevant questions that are unlikely to go away obscured by its preferred explanatory approach.

Faisal Chaudhry
Department of South Asia Studies, University of Pennsylvania


Vol. 4, No. 3, CHIA

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Inclusive Spirituality: The Bodhisattva Kuan-yin as Moral Exemplar and Self-Cultivation in a Malaysian Dharma House

Arthur C. K. Chia*

*谢志健, Division of Sociology, Nanyang Technological University, 50 Nanyang Avenue, Singapore 639798

e-mail: ckchia[at]

Based on an ethnographic study of a lay Buddhist organization in contemporary Malaysia called the Kuan-yin Contemplative Order (KYCO), this paper looks into the inclusive spiritualism KYCO engenders by situating the organization and the religious universalism from which it emerges in the cultural and historical context of “redemptive societies”—a religious tradition that was established during the late imperial era of China and exploded during the early twentieth century into the cities and spread to Southeast Asia. While the ongoing racial politics and simmering religious tensions in Malaysia limit what followers of KYCO can realistically hope to achieve in terms of realizing a more peaceful and equitable existence, these perennial issues and challenges do not stop them from pursuing the ideals of the Bodhisattva—one who out of compassion delays her/his own salvation until all others have been saved from suffering.

Keywords: self-cultivation, morality, inclusive spiritualism, redemptive societies, Malaysia


I readily agreed to join in the Vesak1) day procession that was to be held on a weekend evening of May 2008. No prior registration was required nor forms to be filled. I just needed to show up at the Maha Vihara Buddhist temple in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, joining my friends from the Kuan-yin Contemplative Order (KYCO)—a lay Buddhist organization. They stood out in their crisp all-white attire, looking fresh and clean. There were 11 of them from KYCO that evening. Kiat,2) one of the most active members of KYCO and the coordinator for this outing, was happy to see me there and delighted that I had worn the white KYCO polo shirt as well. Someone from the group pointed at my dark blue cap and said with good humor, “You look like you are from UMNO.” It was a stark reminder of the recent watershed general election of March 2008, which had seen the biggest loss for the ruling Malay party—UMNO—in its history (although the party still maintained a precarious majority).3) I was perturbed by that insinuation, because UMNO is not only the ruling party of the country but also an exclusively and dominantly ethnic Malay political party, and the comment reminded me uncomfortably of my place as an outsider.

The atmosphere was festive as we marched along the 10 km route that weaved through the city of Kuala Lumpur. However, the mood in my group was subdued and somber, in contrast to the joyous singing and easy camaraderie amongst other marchers. Kiat proposed that we “contemplate on the sufferings of the world” and “dedicate merit generated from the march to those who are suffering.” Although the march was not physically arduous and I secretly found it to be enjoyable, Kiat invoked the effort as a spiritual struggle of sorts, dedicating it to all beings—humans and non-humans in this world as well as others.

Going home that night, my mind was occupied by the image of these Chinese middle-class English-speaking devotees from KYCO dressed in white marching solemnly, in contrast to the celebratory atmosphere of the Vesak day procession. They stood out in their all-white outfit as a marker of purity and virtue, and demonstrated visually the relationship between the body’s corporeality and morality.4) Kiat’s reference to suffering seemed to set things in a certain perspective—suffering is central to Buddhism, where the world is depicted as suffering and a solution is sought to the end of suffering5)—but his call to contemplate on the world’s sufferings invoked moral empathy, prompting “something that depends on intellectual and practical disciplines” (Asad 1993, 62).

I am moved by my friends’ actions in which they seek to dedicate themselves to help all beings. By doing so they manifest not only Buddhist compassion but, more important, a spirit of inclusiveness and universalism. Their actions are grounded in aspirations not necessarily realized in the (protective) powers acquired through meditation and disciplinary practices that normally accrue to magical monks and/or meditation masters in Thai, Laotian, or Burmese Buddhism (Houtman 1997; Cook 2010; McDaniel 2011). Instead, KYCO followers aspire toward moral transformation through self-cultivation practices where spiritual accomplishment and morality are demonstrated by the exemplary life and conduct of charismatic lay masters and gifted adepts.

This paper seeks to describe some of these moral aspirations and spiritual experiences, examining the self-cultivation practices and inclusive spiritualism that give rise to them by situating KYCO and the religious universalism from which it emerges in the cultural and historical context of “redemptive societies”—a religious tradition that was established in the late imperial era of China and exploded during the early twentieth century into the cities and spread to Southeast Asia.

Kuan-yin Contemplative Order: Inclusive Spiritualism

The arguments in this paper emerge from fieldwork conducted from 2008 to 2009 at KYCO during which I observed firsthand the activities that KYCO followers carry out in order to fulfill or realize the Bodhisattva Vow6) they have undertaken. I also analyzed KYCO newsletters and magazines containing personal essays, stories, and poems written by followers. The people whom I befriended at KYCO were happy to assist and facilitate my study. They were welcoming of my presence because they perceived it as the work of the divine that had brought me to them, and which they hoped would ultimately lead me to the discovery and achievement of my own goals, spiritually speaking.

In the heartlands of Petaling Jaya—or “PJ” as locals affectionately call it—the suburban residential city southwest of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, people gather regularly at KYCO, located in a nondescript twin double-story link-house, to pray, chant sutras, sing hymns, and listen to Dharma lectures. The KYCO membership consists mainly of urban middle-class ethnic Chinese who are accountants, bankers, managers, lecturers, doctors, computer executives, secretaries, and businessmen as well as retirees and housewives. On festival days, when attendance is highest, thousands of people might pass through the house. Devotees wearing their all-white ensemble descend upon the quiet neighborhood in their Toyota, Honda, Proton, and the occasional Mercedes-Benz sedans. Most people come for the blessings, some for the healing—both spiritual and physical—that are offered by the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin. Many are devout followers, like my friend Kiat, who goes to renew his spiritual and moral vows as well as make new ones.

KYCO was inspired and founded in 1979 by Tony Wong Kuan Ming to fulfill a personal pledge: it was a commitment to “save the world,” but the salvational or redemptive imperatives would become clearer to Tony only in later years. Born in 1940 Kuala Lumpur into a Chinese Catholic household, Tony was the son of a millionaire. He led a self-professed privileged life and was cared for as a boy by ah-mahs (bonded servants) in his household. He received a formative English-based education at Christian missionary schools in Kuala Lumpur. In the late 1970s Tony’s brother Nelson was diagnosed with cancer, and the news devastated his family emotionally. Tony was affected particularly badly, and during his brother’s sickness he (Tony) was “visited” by various Chinese deities who urged him to pray to the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin and start up a congregation of Kuan-yin followers and devotees.

In 1979, Tony began gathering a few friends and colleagues to venerate Kuan-yin and learn about Buddhism at his office. Over time, he acquired a reputation as a healer and teacher of the Buddhist Dharma. Later on, with a sizeable following, he was transformed into Master Tony Wong or “Sifu”—a respectful Cantonese7) term that people use to address him. He is now known mainly as a teacher who delivers the Buddhist Dharma in English, teaching in a way that is considered by his followers to be accessible and useful for the ordinary person. He addresses problems that relate to family, work, and personal well-being, casting and reframing them under the light of Buddhist compassion and moral rhetoric.

The charismatic persona of leadership is not unique to contemporary religious or spiritual organizations; for instance, the successes of Sai Baba’s following, New Age religions, and Christian mega-churches have always hinged upon the skill and popularity of their leaders. The leadership of Sifu or Master Tony Wong as a male authority figure is a central feature of KYCO. Charismatic leadership, alongside the fostering of a family-like atmosphere that is conducive to experiences of emotional security, spiritual effervescence, and moral rhetoric contribute to the appeal of KYCO for many of its followers.

KYCO’s leadership structure may be described as patriarchal. Sifu Tony Wong as the founder-leader assumes the most authoritative role along with “lay clergy”: an inner circle of disciples composed of men and women who are appointed to take charge of ritual duties as well as manage the day-to-day operations of the organization. Entry into this inner core group is coveted by many KYCO followers, including my friend Kiat, but it is decided solely by Sifu, who assesses potential disciples based on their spiritual potential and level of commitment to KYCO. Leadership revolves around Sifu and two of his most senior male disciples, who are exceptional hands-on managers. This centralized patriarchal style of leadership has remained strong over the years. Because of its highly syncretic and non-sectarian pronouncement, KYCO does not subject itself directly to monastic authority; it develops and teaches its own Dharma. Monastic authority serves as a symbolic purpose for KYCO; hence, its relationship with Buddhist organizations and temples can be regarded as competitive rather than hierarchical or complementary.

Through his followers, Sifu has cultivated many close relationships with Tibetan monks and lamas, Sai Baba devotees, spiritual adepts, and local nonsectarian humanitarian figures. Sifu is a key proponent of the Vajrayana Buddhist Council of Malaysia, which was formed in 2000 to represent the Vajrayana Buddhist community and to work with other Buddhist groups in Malaysia. This Vajrayana Buddhist umbrella organization comprises KYCO as well as other Tibetan-based Buddhist organizations, branches, and temples in Malaysia.

The network of affiliations exemplifies the nonsectarian, eclectic, and communal ethos of KYCO. More important, the network is constructed along the lines of affective relationship and personalized interaction. For Sifu and his followers, this relationship is maintained by the regularity of the Dharma sessions and activities at KYCO.

KYCO’s membership number is modest, but the organization can draw upon tremendous support from followers and donors during fund-raising and other important festive as well as philanthropic events. In the context of the Petaling Jaya area, with an urban population of over 450,000, and the Kuala Lumpur metropolitan population of 1.5 million, the establishment and steady growth of urban middle-class spiritual organizations such as KYCO and the socioeconomic wealth and resources they represent are significant developments.

KYCO followers are active supporters of Tibetan Buddhist clergies on the Dharma-dispensing-cum-fund-raising world circuit. In the global scheme of things, they are tapped into the local chapter of the international Sai Baba network; they also engage in local charities and organize spiritual tours to Sai Baba’s headquarters in Puttaparthi, India, as well as Buddhist and Taoist temples in China and Taiwan. Through these activities, they participate in a transnational flow of funds, personnel, activities, and events that encompasses and expands self-cultivation as a spiritual field that dovetails with the growth of a self-help milieu promulgated by a burgeoning global consumer market for self-cultivation or self-help literature, media programs, workshops, retreats, and wellness centers promising to heal, restore, and rejuvenate the soul and to make the world a better place.

KYCO’s membership expanded gradually and spiked during the 1990s, an era when the Sixth Malaysia Plan was rolled out by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The 1991 plan outlined a rapid economic program that envisioned the transformation of Malaysia into a “fully developed country” by the year 2020. The plan also outlined cultural goals to be achieved alongside economic growth. Primary among those were the making of a “liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysians of all colors and creeds would be free to practice and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs” (Mahathir 1991) and the vision of a “united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny” (ibid.) that upended the postcolonial ideology asserting Malay ethnicity as the national identity. It was a powerful and compelling motion of unity and inclusiveness that encouraged the nascent development of nondenominational philanthropic spiritual movements in Malaysia: during this time, the Taiwan-based humanitarian-work-oriented Tzu Chi organization expanded through the outreach efforts of a Taiwanese businessman and his wife based in Melaka (Huang 2009, 247–266); Yiguandao—a Chinese spiritual sect banned in Singapore—put down roots in Malaysia and gained a nationwide following (Soo 1998); the Sai Baba movement grew rapidly (Kent 2005); and charity organizations such as the Pure Life Society, led by spiritually inspired local figures such as Mother Mangalam, captured the imagination and wide support of Malaysians regardless of their race, language, or religion. Together, these entities constitute what could be considered a grassroots spiritual movement that transcends ethnic and religious boundaries with an emphasis on social action and spiritual salvation, charity, and self-cultivation.

Many of their philanthropic and spiritual pursuits are aimed at social as well as personal enrichment. Their membership comprises predominantly well-educated middle-class, middle-aged professionals and businessmen who fraternize in these congregations to network and seek outlets for their shared spiritual and emotional needs. The same people can often be found in different spiritual and philanthropic organizations.

KYCO is part of this grassroots religious movement. Tapped into a network of social as well as business relations, it contributes to the discourse and practice of “civility” and “participation” by advocating Buddhist compassion and adopting an inclusive spiritualism that does not require people to give up their own religions or beliefs or philanthropy. It transgresses boundaries of race, language, religion as well as binaries of good and evil, right and wrong—not by proclaiming ultimate truths but by promulgating a quasi-religious quality of “civility” in public association and interaction that generates peace and respect for others. The political anthropologist Robert Hefner proposes that civility, when added to the “structural reality of civic association,” could bring about the development of a “civil society” (Hefner 2001, 10–11). Weaving individual spiritual and social goals that reinforce and intertwine with each other often blurs the distinction between the needs of the individual versus community, and self versus others. Much of this blurring is embodied in the personal convictions and charisma of Sifu Tony Wong and some of his closest disciples, whose efforts are aimed at making KYCO a meaningful presence in the lives of its followers.

KYCO devotees and followers value the personal and communal relations as well as the moral and spiritual upliftment the organization provides. Sifu Tony Wong is often cited as the primary reason why they support KYCO: they appreciate his teachings, which focus on the “essentials” of Buddhist teachings and have general applicability in cultivating personal wellness as well as the collective well-being of society. In the context of Malaysia’s difficult racial and religious politics, KYCO’s inclusive message of spirituality and morality is poignant yet powerful. Some scholars have come to the conclusion that adherence to the religious or spiritual moral principles of compassion, kindness, empathy, and even philanthropic work does not have a significant impact on civil society. Contrary to these opinions, KYCO demonstrates how personal efficacy is generated through practices and discourses that become political practices however apolitical or anti-political they may appear or claim to be. I argue that KYCO’s spiritually informed notion of inclusiveness continues to be relevant for many Malaysians, with power being drawn not from political institutions but through self-cultivation practices whose moral purpose is to sustain, promote, and uplift life.

Redemptive Societies, Self-Cultivation and Kuan-yin Veneration

The moral rhetoric of self-cultivation practices is reproduced in the notion of Bodhisattvas or Buddhist saints who vow to work for the good of all beings by renouncing their own enlightenment or salvation until all have been saved. Bodhisattvas epitomize the highest ethical standards in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition because “they dedicate themselves in all their lifetimes to rescuing living beings from various kinds of suffering” (Mrozik 2004, 176).

The idea that it is possible and desirable to attain or acquire certain qualities and transform oneself into a better person or a more superior form of being through self-cultivation has been present in Chinese religious, philosophical, and medical traditions. Self-cultivation, generally understood to be a set of mental and physical routines, is undertaken as an individual practice or in groups. Varieties of self-cultivation are found in Buddhist, Taoist, as well as Confucian traditions; in traditional Chinese medical teachings; and in the bio-spiritual practice of qigong and Chinese martial arts. All these different traditions and practices of self-cultivation share the common idea that humans can attain a stage of perfection (in whatever ways the traditions dictate or determine what that perfection is) through physical and mental disciplines (Palmer and Liu 2012; Penny 2012).

Self-cultivation popularized through Chinese redemptive societies during the turbulent Chinese Republican era of the early twentieth century achieved a particular social and political salience in China as well as among Chinese communities in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The term “redemptive societies” was coined by Prasenjit Duara in his study of Manchukuo—the Japanese state established in the Chinese northeast (Manchuria) between 1932 and 1945 (Duara 2003). Later scholars have used the term to describe and identify groups such as Falun Gong (Ownby 2008) and Dejiao (Formoso 2010). Redemptive societies that emerged out of the troubled times at the turn of the twentieth century in China “urged the extinguishing of worldly desires and engagement in moral action” (ibid., 103), retaining sectarian traditions and scriptures as well as popular practices such as divination, spirit writing, and so on. These spiritual and historical traditions provided ideas and notions of sovereignty for the project of nation making and modernization in Manchukuo.

Redemptive cults such as Dao De-hui (Morality Society), Daoyuan (Society of the Way), Zailijiao (The Teaching of the Abiding Principle), Shijie Zongjiao Datong-hui (Society for the Great Unity of World Religions), and Yiguandao (Way of Pervading Unity) claimed a following of 7 million to 30 million people in China from the 1930s to the 1940s (ibid.). These organizations taught and put into practice a universalizing and syncretic form of Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Members of contemporary redemptive societies were usually drawn from the cities and urban townships. They included the local gentry and officials who came together to partake in philanthropic activities such as disaster relief, poverty alleviation, education, the teaching of virtues including charity and filial piety, as well as self-cultivation.

Adapting to the times by incorporating major religious traditions and teachings, redemptive societies focused on the idioms of self-cultivation, knowledge, and the rhetoric of “saving the world” from physical destruction and moral impairment. Moral and spiritual goals as well as processes were pitted against hedonistic materialism, and communal as well as community needs were put before self-interest. Popular concerns about moral progress and the rhetoric of universal redemption came to be associated with “civilizational ideals and practices” of wenming8) (文明, Chinese civilization) and jiaohua9) (教化, moral transformation) (Duara 2003, 105–106) with the explicit aim of teaching the truths of “heaven” and the “way” to transform selves and society, and to “urge towards a transcendent universalism” (ibid.) or restore the “glory of ancient civilization” (Formoso 2010).

Thus, redemptive societies not only embodied virtues of an older moral order, they were also engaged in the reconstruction of communities and society along utopian visions of the future. Self-cultivation, then, would lead to the achievement of civilized nobility or wen (文). The cultivation of a strong inner spirit, neisheng (内聖), that matched the outer/worldly dimension of waiwang10) (外王) constituted a fundamental practice of redemptive societies (Duara 2003, 103–104). Therefore, self-cultivation practices included “outer” or outward expressions of kindness such as the performing of charity or charitable deeds as well as “inner” practices of moral and spiritual introspection, maintaining abstinences, and the observation of a moral code or behavior and bodily comportment. For the political aspirants and community leaders among members of redemptive societies, they advocated the development of a strong inner spiritual dimension through “moral religious cultivation of the individual spirit and body” (ibid., 105) to match an outer dimension of engaging in worldly affairs through philanthropic enterprises and public works. Thus, self-cultivation prescribes for the elites as well as the politically ambitious a way of connecting the inner state—hopes, aspirations, and passions that constitute a sense of self—with outer social and political action.

Describing the redemptive societies project as a “civilizing process,” Duara highlights its mission to enlighten or teach and transform social morality through virtuous rule and self-cultivation. Redemptive societies such as the Morality Society, Yiguandao, and Red Swastika were lay religious congregations that espoused an ideology of universal salvation promoting a syncretism of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, which gained popularity amongst Confucian gentry and the Buddhist as well as Taoist laity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in the twentieth century came to encompass and adapt world religions, including Islam and Christianity (ibid., 103–104). They sought to distill “truths” from these traditions and to synthesize religious as well as moral visions with a scientific view of the world. They adopted a social organization along the lines of a Christian model of “religion,” with “a church hierarchy, Sunday prayers, missions, journals, and even, in some cases baptism” (Goossaert and Palmer 2011, 95). Claiming to represent “religious modernity in its universal dimension” (ibid.), redemptive societies were highly effective in mobilizing members into large organizations of adepts who engaged in a variety of self-cultivation and devotional practices as well as in performing emergency relief work.

Redemptive societies had national reach, with provincial and municipal organizations registered under the post-imperial Chinese state as philanthropic public associations. They were characterized by a distinct mode of authority and a leadership system that emphasized an intimate master-disciple relationship, a fraternity of brotherhood constituted by a closed group of adepts, and a network of followers and practitioners who operated within a broad moralistic discourse (Goossaert 2008, 25–26).

KYCO’s emergence during the 1980s coincided with a flourishing of redemptive societies led by Dejiao (Formoso 2010) and Yiguandao (Soo 1998) in Malaysia, when branches, prayer halls, and family shrines were set up on the advice and request of relatives, friends, and colleagues who were sect members from Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. However, the newly formed sects faced tremendous pressure and consternation from religious bodies such as the Malaysian Buddhist Association and the local Chinese press, who accused and depicted sect members as “heretics,” “foreign swindlers,” “deviant,” “evil,” and “anti-social.” Yiguandao was banned in Taiwan until 1987 and is still considered to be illegal in China due to its “alleged close ties with the Japanese puppet government at Manchukuo during the Sino-Japanese war, and partly due to the hostile views held towards it by leaders of the more orthodox Buddhist groups” (Lim 2011, 7). In July 1981 Singapore expelled and blacklisted 12 Taiwanese Yiguandao members for spreading heretic teachings (Soo 1998, 155), but this only further strengthened the group’s resolve:

One direct consequence of this early negative experience was the decision by Taiwan-based leadership to establish a chemical factory in Singapore as a front for missionary activities and as a viable source of funds for the expansion of the group in Singapore and the region. In 1981, the group formally registered in Singapore as the Hua Yuan Hui, essentially identifying itself publicly as a moral uplifting society and charitable organization, and not as Yiguandao and an explicitly religious organization. In fact, the name of Hua Yuan Hui in Singapore suggested both an orientation towards Chinese traditional culture that might appeal to the Chinese population in the country, as well as to fit into the state’s effort to cultivate moral citizens through the re-acquaintance of the “traditional culture” of one’s ethnicity. (Lim 2011, 8)

The Malaysian Chinese media picked up on the negative public perception resulting from Singapore’s expulsion of the 12 Taiwanese Yiguandao members and cast a similar lens onto the situation in Malaysia. It highlighted a public quarrel between individuals that implicated sect teachings and practices suggesting moral impropriety. With significant encouragement from the Chinese press, a grassroots vigilante group to combat “hereticism” was formed by one of the antagonists in the quarrel, and it attracted a handful of supporters. Finally, in 1993, the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs stepped in to issue a warning against the “illegal preaching” and “propagation of heretical teaching” that caused “disunity among Chinese communities” while reiterating the government’s policy of religious freedom and its guarantee under the Malaysian Constitution (Soo 1998, 165).

Not unlike their innovative redemptive society counterparts, serious KYCO followers cast themselves as spiritual cultivators, take the Bodhisattva Vow, and adopt a gentle, caring, humble, and faithful disposition. They learn to accept Sifu’s teachings with humility and respect, practice self-cultivation, and strive toward a moral life, convinced that moral discipline and self-cultivation are an efficacious way to mediate the consequences of karma as a form of “retribution from past actions” or “inescapable Fate” (Van der Veer 1989, 458).

Here, KYCO devotees share with their religious counterparts in Buddhism and Taoism a basic adherence to the following tenets. First, the universe is believed to comprise benevolent (as well as malevolent) spirits and divine entities. Second, historical religious figures such as the Buddha, Jesus Christ, etc., as well as contemporary ones such as Sathya Sai Baba (1926–2011)—the Hindu spiritual founder-leader of the international Sai Baba movement—are regarded as compelling evidence of the divine presence in the human world. These figures are believed to be virtuous, efficacious, and responsive. Third, practical, moral, and spiritual goals are intertwined, and these goals are believed to be achieved or achievable through individual as well as collective effort rather than through belief or faith alone. Through these efforts to be awakened and thus to be free from suffering, devotees aspire toward positive changes in their lives and within themselves. They invest their time and energy in self-cultivation practices such as contemplation, praying, chanting, and charity that fulfill personal aspirations; reinforce fortitude; give meaning; emphasize feelings and cathartic sensations; and embody caring and giving as well as belonging and laboring. These self-cultivation practices enact feelings of doing right and good, which may be discerned and understood as moral or ethical practices (Zigon 2013).

The character and ethos of redemptive societies—particularly lay voluntary organizations—the emphasis on moral transformation, and the practice of self-cultivation have been built on the foundation of Kuan-yin veneration, which could perhaps be described as “personal fulfillment” for devotees (Lee and Ackerman 1997, 68). Kuan-yin is a powerful symbol of compassion and efficacy: devotees believe that Kuan-yin offers protection for women and children as well as relief for those who experience suffering. Scholars suggest that the popularity of Kuan-yin among Chinese in Southeast Asia arose because ancestral cults, which are based on notions of lineage, lost their hold or appeal among voluntary Buddhist associations in migrant communities (Topley 1961, Nyce 1971, Baity 1975, Sangren 1983 in Lee and Ackerman 1997, 69). Kuan-yin’s popularity signaled the decline of patrilineal forms of relations and organizations due to the dominance of impersonal market conditions. Thus, Kuan-yin-venerating voluntary Buddhist associations that upheld and propagated a “universalistic kinship idiom” (Lee and Ackerman 1997, 70) were able to incorporate unrelated people of different social status, language, and ethnicity into communities that comprised members, followers, and devotees. The idea of “universal kinship” entailed new forms of social relatedness through membership and association of faith. It facilitated the development of new social organizations and relations determined by what people do and how they act in a new environment.

Organizations such as the Great Way of the Former Heaven (Topley 1963), a secretive sect that arrived with the waves of Chinese migration during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, played a vital role as a voluntary Buddhist association that propagated Kuan-yin veneration in Southeast Asia. It nurtured the idiom of universal kinship that incorporated devotees into a community of “Kuan-yin’s children.” The origin of the Great Way of the Former Heaven could be traced to the Buddhist sectarian White Lotus sect, which sprang up during the fourteenth century against Mongol rule in China and played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Ming dynasty, which reigned from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century.

Later, sect members who were wealthy Chinese merchants donated money and land to set up a series of Kuan-yin temples, including the Waterloo Street Kuan-yin temple in Singapore in 1884, which gained a reputation for efficacy. They also established a series of “vegetarian halls” that functioned as “mutual aid establishments for women who sought to live unmarried or to remain unmarried once they had been widowed” (Prazniak 1999, 229) in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia following commercial and family connections as well as philanthropic interests. All the efforts that went into establishing public temples and semi-private vegetarian halls not only contributed to the efficacy and popularity of Kuan-yin veneration but also laid the ground for the development of redemptive societies.

Compassion: Inclusive Spiritualism, Moral Reasoning, and Self-Cultivation in Practice

KYCO’s ethos of compassion symbolizes an inclusive spiritualism, morality, and self-cultivation that are embodied and expressed vividly in the everyday life and struggles of followers. Lim Kuan Meng is a Kuala Lumpur native and lifelong KYCO follower. Strongly opinionated, he has a caustic sense of humor and a wry wit to match. Nothing is too sacred for him; his sarcasm spares no one and has earned him a reputation. He is revered and respected as an elder but also quietly loathed for his acidic tongue. Mr. Lim joined KYCO more than 20 years ago through his wife, who regularly attended Sifu’s Dharma sessions. Now in their mid-60s, the couple live in nearby Petaling Jaya.

An economics graduate of the University of Malaya, Mr. Lim pursued a professional career in banking, where he reviewed and dispensed loans to individuals as well as private businesses for the most part of his working life. But several years ago he was forced into early retirement, and for a period of time he found himself in a precarious financial position. He struggled to make ends meet, relying on an irregular stream of income from periodic consulting jobs advising small companies. On a few occasions, usually after a Dharma session, we would hang out at the neighborhood coffee shop to chat. I took the chance to speak with him about his religious and spiritual pursuits. Mr. Lim disclosed that he became more serious about religion after his early retirement: he devoted one hour each morning to praying, chanting, and meditating at home. He made it quite clear to me that his spiritual practice was not just an escape into the quiet or a withdrawal into himself, but an outreach to others through charity and service, which he considers to be the most important part of his spirituality.

During my encounters with Mr. Lim, we talked frequently about the world economy. Deeply frustrated with the financial crisis of 2008, he could not come to terms with how a small elite group of men—investment bankers, driven by greed and personal gain—could make decisions that adversely affected the lives of so many people around the world. He was critical of “easy credit” consumption and felt that “real businesses” such as the small enterprises that he consulted for had to pay the price and suffer because of the tightening credit crunch. It was a spiral into a moral abyss, Mr. Lim decried. Over many late-night suppers, he gave me a gloomy prognosis of the socioeconomic situation in Malaysia: foreclosures of businesses and houses, a prolonged slump in the property and stock markets, and high unemployment. He lamented the rising cost of living, especially in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, and said, “Inflation has been rampant and wages stagnant over the past decade. The quality of life has deteriorated. Even eating out [in Kuala Lumpur] has become costly for many people. Imagine a plate of chicken rice that costs RM4.50, even RM5, versus S$2.50 in Singapore on a wage level that is comparatively lower here.”

Mr. Lim felt that something had been fundamentally wrong over the past decade, when people did not seem to have benefited from the economic growth years before the financial crisis hit in 2008. “Where was the prosperity that the government kept talking about?” he asked. “People just do not feel it.” His disappointment, as he pointed out himself, had come from “the hard-hitting reality on the ground.” Expressing sympathy toward young working adults, especially those who were planning or just starting a family, he cited the exorbitant costs of a marriage banquet, buying a house, getting a car, and other concerns that reflected a sense of his own trepidation for his children’s future. Mr. Lim’s perspective of the world was grim and pessimistic. He did not camouflage his sometimes dark and pensive mood or fatalistic views. “The way I see it, people’s lives are getting more and more difficult, even desperate,” he said, not foreseeing an end to the sources of human suffering and viewing the world as declining. His reflection on the difficult human circumstances (including his own) ruptured by the fickle boom-and-bust cycles of the modern financial and economic system only hardened his fatalistic view of the world. “It is not that I am angry or pessimistic,” he said ironically, “the world can only become a better place provided that people become more compassionate.” Compassion was a powerful moral imperative that he strongly believed would make this world a better, if not more bearable, place to live in. He said compassion “moves people’s hearts so that they could hear the sufferings of others.” The value of compassion—the empathy of suffering with those who suffer, leading to benevolent action—is often cited as the central emphasis of KYCO and a core quality for followers.

There were two significant events in Mr. Lim’s life when he made “personal sacrifices”: on the first occasion, he gave a significant sum of money to help an acquaintance—the father of his daughter’s classmate, mired in debt—even though he himself was not financially secure; and on the second occasion, he gave a huge sum of money to help out an old friend who had lost his fortune in the erratic property market. Mr. Lim recounted:

I had a call from an old friend whom I had been worried about, for I knew he was going through very difficult moments in life. I was glad he called, for he was on my mind then. He had been out of work for a year and hoped that I could help in some real estate brokerage deals. He had some clients, but the properties for sale were marginalized properties that did not excite the market at all. Nor were the potential buyers he had genuine. I sensed he was in quite deep financial difficulty and found him emaciating fast! It was not a good sign, especially the latter, as I had just lost a friend to cancer who had had accelerated emaciation just six months before he died. As it was four days to Chinese New Year, I was concerned this filial son, a good husband and father to three sons, may just find the festive season too difficult to face. I called him for a drink. When I passed him a “red packet” and apologized I could not give more, he broke into tears and said: “All my friends have avoided me and refused to help. Without asking, you gave me this.” His tears flowed heavier when he felt the weight of the red packet, which contained a substantial sum—enough to buy a home theater set. I wanted only for him to be able to hold his head high. I told him he was to take his mother in Ipoh and his family for a reunion dinner and to buy them necessities for the New Year, never to let them worry at all. I’ll try to settle his delinquent housing loan. . . . He then subsequently confided in me that now, at the age of 50, he had contracted nose cancer. I had to fight off my tears all that while, as I regretted I was truly unable to really help much more as I too was unemployed and had been medically forced into retirement. I told him that was what brothers were for as we parted!

The suffering of his friends weighed heavily on Mr. Lim; their anguish inflicted as much shame and guilt as it induced compassion and empathy in him. The compassion that Mr. Lim felt for his friends who were down on their luck was inscribed by the shame and guilt he felt over being unable to do more despite his relatively more secure and better-off position in life. Stories of “personal sacrifices” like Mr. Lim’s articulate a situated-ness or consciousness in the world that do not suggest collective advocacy or social action but turn to the importance of personal commitment and individual action. Mr. Lim cast socioeconomic problems within the ambit of personal responsibility and spirituality. He recognized these problems as systemic or structural as well as moral in nature. By thinking about the difficulties that he and his friends had confronted in moral terms, Mr. Lim considered what kind of person he was trying to become or what he could and should be. His perspective emphasized compassion as an end in itself and not so much a means or solution to social problems.

In his narration, Mr. Lim expressed compassion as an ultimate imperative to be pursued with determined effort. According to him, compassion was a matter of heart-work rather than something dogmatic, prescriptive, or coercive. When I asked Mr. Lim more pointedly to explain what compassion meant to him and what it took to be compassionate, he replied firmly:

My ideal is to be kind, and I will try to be kind. I may not be perfectly kind, but I can be kind any time I want to be. And I do not move toward whether I will be kind; I will be kind whenever I should be and must be kind. That is how I move forward . . . always moving toward something better. Not only kind, but I am going to be kind and caring, kind and helpful, kind and gentle, kind and charitable, kind and noble. I will keep on moving until a time comes when I [can] say that I am going to be selflessly kind . . .

In elaborating on the meaning of compassion, Mr. Lim imagined a “progressive path” toward “selfless kindness” that could be understood as an “unconditional,” “no strings attached,” “without expecting anything in return” type of kindness. More importantly to Mr. Lim, it was a matter of autonomy—“I can be kind any time I want to be”—expressing free will as it pertained to the exercise of compassion. During one of our conversations, I asked Mr. Lim how he knew whether he was successful in his spiritual-moral endeavor. He replied with some bittersweet bemusement, “You will always be a joyous person even if your life is difficult: joyous because you know many others are happier than you—this is selflessness.” Mr. Lim’s response illustrates moral reasoning, which by one’s own means and volition—and effected on one’s thoughts and conduct—is critical to the attainment of compassion as well as a state of peace and happiness.

Compassion is also about skills and practice, particularly empathetic suffering with those who suffer, leading to benevolent action. Spiritual adepts are expected to act on their sense of compassion with a desire to do so, with no strings attached, and without expectation of anything in return. This is best demonstrated through intended acts of charitable giving, defined by the exemplary standards of the Bodhisattva. As an “embodied ethical ideal” (Mrozik 2004), the Bodhisattva is virtue incarnate. This is illustrated in the popular Chinese legend of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin, who in her mortal life as Princess Miao-shan sacrificed herself to save her cruel and despotic father.

“How do we make compassion real, rather than it just being a good idea and an ideal?” I asked Mr. Lim. He highlighted how KYCO had organized visits and raised funds for several charity institutions, including the nondenominational orphanage run by Mother Mangalam of Pure Life Society. He explained empathetically that “real charity” came from self-cultivation and said, “Without skills, you can tell a joke at the wrong time; without wisdom and compassion, you contribute to charity wrongly.” Thus, self-cultivation is critical in opening the heart and connecting one with the feelings of compassion and kindness. Effective self-cultivation also enables practitioners to develop a sense of equanimity and calmness in the face of adversities and adversaries.

Listening with the Heart: Moral Empathy and Skills

During one of our regular suppers at a café near KYCO, I confided in Kiat my increasing frustration with Sifu’s Dharma lectures: it had been several months already, and in spite of my efforts, I still did not know what to make of these lectures, which seemed esoteric and didactic to my untrained ears. In his kindly and patient way, Kiat advised me to “open my heart.” He said, “Do not feel pressurized to understand everything that Sifu is saying. Just know that the intentions are good, and try to listen with your heart. Listen with a pure heart and go along with your feelings of sincerity and kindness.”

By exhorting that I listen with my heart, Kiat suggested that I would be able to perceive the essence of Sifu’s Dharma lectures without necessarily understanding them. Kiat’s statement points to a form of comprehension or understanding that is not necessarily conceptual. This conception of knowing without understanding is played out between distinctions of the heart and mind, wisdom and knowledge, where the wisdom attained through spiritual practice is distinguished from the kind of knowledge acquired through thinking and reasoning. In other words, knowing is not the same as having knowledge. In order to know, I would first have to learn how to listen with my heart.

Listening to Sifu’s Dharma lectures is an exercise in self-discipline, as devotees/followers strive to learn how to improve themselves. Followers take Sifu’s Dharma lectures, held two or three times a week, seriously. Attending the lectures constitutes a learning that enriches self-knowledge and purifies the heart. According to Kiat, listening to Sifu’s Dharma lectures has enabled him to deal better with life events; it has also helped him become a better person. Listening with the heart is a metonym for discipline. My frustration with the “incomprehensibility” of Sifu’s Dharma lectures demonstrated to Kiat that listening was not a passive process: simply listening to Sifu’s Dharma lectures does not necessarily make one a follower or a more moral person; one needs to listen with sincerity and conviction, concentration as well as intention.

The effects of Sifu’s Dharma lectures are evocative—the lectures attempt to inspire responses such as shame and repentance, humility and equanimity. These are affective dispositions that endow the heart with the capacity to think and feel morally. Sifu’s audience reciprocates by “listening properly”: during lectures followers sit with their backs straight, take notes, and maintain a serious attitude throughout.

Sifu’s oratorical virtuosity is evidenced by his ability to move some of his audience to various states of introspection, elation, and even sadness. But Sifu is reticent about such emotions and passions: emotions are not an end—they must lead to moral transformation. Sifu’s rhetorical techniques deployed to effect the desired emotions, passions, and affective dispositions can be outlined in three parts: first, the invocation of human suffering and misery such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, tensions in the restive southern region of Thailand, and the conflict in the Middle East aim to startle listeners out of their complacency. Natural calamities as well as socio-political unrest around the world provide a rich “eschatological phantasmagoria” (Hirschkind 2001, 631) to draw upon. Second, Dharma lectures edify by reproaching and berating, for example in a lecture on “relationship” Sifu chided his audience:

That is why if anyone has got no love for his or her parents, that is a very, very unfortunate being. Such beings will have much to answer at the end of life, and future lifetimes will surely have an unfortunate life of being rejected in his childhood because whoever does not repay parental love, even the Buddha will not cast His love upon him. . . . So you have to think very, very carefully. If you cannot love your parents, you are someone who is worse than an animal. . . . If we ever ill-treat our parents, then, according to our Path and most religions, this is one way of going down to Hell.

Third, by weaving his lectures into the lived experiences of his audience, Sifu highlights problems of everyday life such as setbacks and anxieties over health, relationships, and work that point toward or can lead to certain solutions and resolutions. The rhetorical method Sifu deploys in his lectures often entails moral exhortation and a call for the practice of self-cultivation. In his lectures, Sifu maps out a system of progression from anxiety and fear to shame and guilt, then to repentance, forgiveness, empathy, and finally compassion. It attempts to prescribe a set of emotions to be experienced by the listener, and seeks to achieve a moral state that is founded upon the embodied capacities of emotion such as the ability to allay anger and to forgive others for their wrongdoings and transgressions (real or perceived), rather than obedience to rules, doctrine, or belief.

The success of Sifu’s Dharma lectures is ultimately dependent on the listening skill of his audience. The cultivation of this listening skill is essential for the audience to be moved as well as to derive meanings and insights from these lectures. Listening with the heart speaks of a moral and disciplinary practice that aims to mold and strengthen resolve; it has less to do with the indoctrination or dissemination of rules than the formation of a sensorium; it seeks neither to persuade nor force but to arouse feelings so as to impart perceptual habits that predispose one toward certain actions and states of mind. It is about developing a moral outlook, about learning to interpret, understand, and act upon the world as “a space of moral action and the actor as a moral being” (ibid., 641).

Sifu’s Dharma lectures focus mainly on the cultivation of perceptual skills and habits that are fundamentally grounded in a morality rather than a concern with tradition, doctrine, or discourse. This is similar to what some scholars have argued in anthropological studies on Islamic and Christian practices—that the conception of what constitutes “apt performance” is “not the apparent repetition of an old form” (Asad 1986, 14–15 in Hirschkind 2001, 641). The perceptual skill of empathy and the disposition of compassion that practitioners seek to cultivate are honed by years of praying, chanting, contemplating, and listening with the heart. Listening with the heart as a disciplinary form of self-cultivation highlights and exaggerates emotions such as pity, joy, and sadness. It evokes a sense of compassion, beauty, gentleness, and grace that magnifies and scrutinizes the processes of feeling, thinking, and empathizing.

Like their predecessors from redemptive societies, KYCO followers are encouraged to “bring forth” their qualities of kindness and compassion through listening with the heart as a way of self-cultivation. The focus on the self is explicit and essential for the cultivation of virtues in order to meet moral or ethical demands and to negate or avoid negative karma. In sharpening one’s sense of self-awareness, it aims to open up potentials and possibilities for the right action instead of restricting and restraining one from wrong conduct. As a form of self-fashioning, self-cultivation is part of an identity project where devotees and followers seek to (re)constitute and transform themselves into the kind of person they think they ought to become, at a time of religious and political tensions marked by episodic violence. Such violence includes the “cow head incident” on August 28, 2009, in which Muslim protestors brought along and desecrated a cow’s head to oppose the relocation of a Hindu temple from one residential area to another in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Boston Globe, August 29, 2009; Singh 2010).

The virtue of compassion as a bedrock of spiritual and moral life for followers is widely acceptable and generally recognized as an exemplary goal and noble principle for self-cultivation. In this respect, nobody needs any persuasion or compulsion to convince themselves of the immediate merit of Sifu’s teachings. However, followers would have to constantly listen and re-listen, read and reread Sifu’s lectures and teachings, in order to gradually gain many insights into his perspective of the world. The moral dictates and goals articulated in Sifu’s lectures and teachings are challenging to fulfill, but for serious followers they have become a life-consuming pursuit. Standing firm in their conviction, these followers strongly believe that if they cultivate with a true heart and follow Sifu’s instructions closely, it is possible to attain the goal of fully living out the Bodhisattva Vow they have made.

For many devotees and followers of KYCO, self-cultivation is nothing more than an efficacious practice in the ideals of compassion, service, and reverence—one in which people meet other sincere, well-meaning, polite, helpful, and encouraging people, where they find support and friendship in a semi-formalized spiritual and moral fellowship of sorts. For them, self-cultivation is not overtly about freedom or political power but a way that involves potentially a new rationale and understanding. Applied as an everyday life tactic, self-cultivation allows people to “escape without leaving” (De Certeau 2000), even momentarily, the sometimes uncertain and anxiety-filled situations that are experienced and expressed as suffering. The politics of self-cultivation plays out mainly as an internal drama of the self—reimagining and remaking oneself within the social and political order that contains it, articulated by the moral ideology and inclusive spiritualism of redemptive societies.


This paper describes the spiritual experience and aspirations of a contemporary grassroots religious movement exemplified by KYCO in Malaysia. It examines KYCO’s ethos of inclusive spiritualism, morality, and compassion and situates it within the cultural and historical tradition of redemptive societies and its discourse of the body, self-cultivation, and religious universalism. It also highlights how the spiritual and mundane, the ethical and ideological, the moral and political as well as the self and social are intertwined and mutually constitutive rather than distinct and causal.

On nearly every other day of the week, from early evening until late into the night, the premises of KYCO ring softly with melodic chanting and singing, which adds an ethereal feel to the tranquility of its middle-class suburban neighborhood. There is a keen sense of power, something emanating from the deliberate voice of Sifu echoing through the in-house speakers and in the pensive gaze of his followers. There is no doubt among the followers that the KYCO space they fill almost every second day is abundant with a melancholic but purposeful and contemplative energy. For a few precious hours on those days, KYCO opens up as a space for followers to reflect, to express, and to seek answers to life’s complex problems; it is also a place for them to gain strength and find solace in the company of their “brothers and sisters in Dharma.” The power or energy that they draw upon, mobilize, and renew is an everyday power of affection as well as personal effectiveness.

Listening to Sifu’s Dharma lectures and watching enraptured KYCO followers diligently taking notes and engulfed in their own thoughts, I am alerted to the seriousness with which they take the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow they have taken or, as Sifu said in one of his Dharma lectures, “. . . to transform ourselves from human-hood to Bodhisattva-hood.” Transformation and change are central themes in Sifu’s teachings, and so are they core ideas in many religious traditions. Yet these traditions, whether in pursuit of sage-hood or Bodhisattva-hood, are not the only or necessarily the main cultural reference points for KYCO followers who also furbish their own understanding from Sai Baba, Tibetan Buddhism, Theosophy, New Age teachings, and popular psychology references. All these have come to inform the ideas and processes through which they make of themselves the kind of people they think they ought to become—in the terms and principles of inclusive spiritualism. Buddhist compassion is understood as inclusive spiritualism and embodied through moral reasoning as well as self-cultivation that do not compel followers toward any singular or particular truth claim. Instead, it initiates a reflexive and empathetic process of listening with the heart that works on one’s anxieties, guilt, and shame as well as hopes and passions in order to help one adapt to or face one’s circumstances, fate, and karmic providence.

Followers are enjoined to fulfill their Bodhisattva Vow not through the imposition of codes and rules of conduct or beliefs but through the development of perceptual habits, skills, and ethical capacities as well as reflexivity in terms of what they have to consider for themselves to be apt conduct and moral or ethical action. In the context of contemporary Malaysia, rife with politically charged religious and ethnic tensions as well as economic uncertainties, followers voice these anxieties not as the cause nor condition of suffering but challenges to be overcome by themselves. By working on themselves and their moralities, they have sought to expand their spiritual repertoire or perceptual horizons and emotional capacities charged with social and political potential, where the historical precedent of redemptive societies sheds some light on their moral aspirations and religious experiences.

Accepted: May 13, 2015


I wish to thank Goh Beng Lan, Graham M. Jones, and Susan S. Silbey for their intellectual direction as well as Prasenjit Duara for opening up an entire scholarly universe in one of his courses on Chinese civilization and religion at the National Univ ersity of Singapore (NUS). I also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments. This paper is based in part on fieldwork supported by NUS during my PhD dissertation. Finally, I am deeply grateful to KYCO for their generous hospitality, patience, and guidance.


Ackerman, Susan E.; and Lee, Raymond L. M. 1988. Heaven in Transition: Non-Muslim Religious Innovation and Ethnic Identity in Malaysia. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

―. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

―. 1986. The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. Occasional Paper Series. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

Boston Globe. 2009. Malaysian Muslims Protest against Proposed Construction of Hindu Temple, August 29, 2009. accessed: June 12, 2015.

Cook, Joanna. 2010. Meditation in Modern Buddhism: Renunciation and Change in Thai Monastic Life. New York: Cambridge University Press.

De Certeau, Michel. 2000. The Certeau Reader, edited by Graham Ward. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Duara, Prasenjit. 2003. Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchuko and the East Asian Modern. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Formoso, Bernard. 2010. De Jiao: A Religious Movement in Contemporary China and Overseas: Purple Qi from the East. Singapore: NUS Press.

Goossaert, Vincent. 2008. Mapping Charisma among Chinese Religious Specialists. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 12(2): 3–28.

Goossaert, Vincent; and Palmer, David. 2011. Cultural Revitalization: Redemptive Societies and Secularized Traditions. In The Religious Question in Modern China by Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer, pp. 91–122. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hatfield, Donald J. 2002. Fate in the Narrativity and Experience of Selfhood, a Case from Taiwanese “Chhiam” Divination. American Ethnologist 29(3): 857–877.

Hefner, Robert W. 2001. The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

―. 1994. Disciplined Matter. Current Anthropology 35(4): 477–479.

Hirschkind, Charles. 2001. The Ethics of Listening: Cassette-Sermon Audition in Contemporary Egypt. American Ethnologist 28(3): 623–649.

Houtman, Gustaaf. 1997. The Biography of Modern Burmese Meditation Master U Ba Khin: Life before the Cradle and past the Grave. In Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, edited by Juliane Schober, pp. 310–344. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Huang, C. Julia. 2009. Charisma and Compassion: Cheng Yen and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Movement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kent, Alexandra. 2005. Divinity and Diversity: A Hindu Revitalization Movement in Malaysia. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.

Lee, Raymond. 1997. Sacred Tensions: Modernity and Religious Transformation in Malaysia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Lee, Raymond; and Ackerman, Susan. 1997. Sacred Tensions: Modernity and Religious Transformation in Malaysia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Lim, Francis. 2011. The Eternal Mother and the State: Circumventing Religious Management in Singapore. Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 161. Singapore: Asia Research Institute.

Mahathir Mohamad. 1991. The Way Forward. Date accessed: June 12, 2015.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

―. 2003. Ethical Formation and Politics of Individual Autonomy in Contemporary Egypt. Social Research 70(3): 837–866.

McDaniel, Justin. 2011. The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mrozik, Susanne. 2004. Cooking Living Beings: The Transformative Effects of Encounters with Bodhisattva Bodies. Journal of Religious Ethics 32(1): 175–194.

Ownby, David. 2008. In Search of Charisma: The Falun Gong Diaspora. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 12(2): 106–120.

Palmer, David. 2008. Embodying Utopia: Charisma in the Post-Mao Qigong Craze. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 12(2): 69–89.

Palmer, David; and Liu, Xun. 2012. Daoism in the Twentieth Century: Between Eternity and Modernity. California: University of California Press.

Penny, Benjamin. 2012. The Religion of Falun Gong. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Prazniak, Roxanne. 1999. Chuansha, Jiangsu: Ding Fei and Her Vegetarian Sisterhood in Resistance to Reform. In Of Camel Kings and Other Things: Rural Rebels against Modernity in Late Imperial China, pp. 213–256. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Singh, Bilveer. 2010. Malaysia in 2009: Confronting Old Challenges through a New Leadership. Asian Survey 50(1): 173–184.

Soo, Khin Wah. 1998. A Study of the Yiguandao (Unity Sect) and Its Development in Peninsular Malaysia. PhD dissertation, University of British Columbia.

Topley, Marjorie. 1963. The Great Way of Former Heaven: A Group of Chinese Secret Religious Sects. Bulletin of SOAS 26(2): 362–392.

Van der Veer, Peter. 1989. The Power of Detachment: Disciplines of Body and Mind in the Ramanandi Order. American Ethnologist 16(3): 458–470.

Yu, Chun-fang. 2000. Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2013. On Love: Remaking Moral Subjectivity in Post Rehabilitation Russia. American Ethnologist 40(1): 201–215.

1) Vesak is a holiday observed by Buddhists in many countries. Vesak commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of the Buddha. It falls on a full moon day, typically during the fifth or sixth lunar month of the year.

2) Out of respect to religious sensitivities in Malaysia and to protect confidentiality, most names in this paper are pseudonyms.

3) UMNO stands for United Malays National Organisation. It is the dominant political party amongst 13 other parties organized along ethnic and communal lines, in the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). Other component parties of BN include the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan or Malaysia’s Peoples Movement). During the general election of March 2008, BN lost its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives), which it had held since independence in August 1957; 82 parliamentary seats and 5 states went to a newly formed coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance or PR) led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The election marked the start of a series of power struggles between and within these two political groups. See also “Malaysia in 2009: Confronting Old Challenges through a New Leadership” (Singh 2010).

4) In Buddhism, “beautiful bodies” serve as visible markers of, and are presumed to be the karmic effects of, morality. For example, it is written in the Pali Buddhist canon “Digha Nikaya” that the Buddha is reported to have borne 32 greater and 80 lesser marks held to be distinguished qualities of the body. Thus, a description of a person’s physical features and appearances may serve as a commentary of his or her moral character (Mrozik 2004).

5) The notion of suffering also requires us to attend to the idea of embodiment—that is, that human action and experience are sited in a material body—as well as the idea of the body as an “integrated totality having developable capacities for activity and experience unique to it, the capacities for sensing, imagining, and doing that are culturally mediated” (Asad 1993, 89). I argue that the body’s ability to suffer and respond to suffering, as well as to use its own suffering in social relationships by empathizing with others, constitute the conduct and experiences of KYCO marchers during the Vesak day procession of 2008.

6) In Mahayana Buddhist practice, vow taking underscores a compelling desire to cultivate compassion and is such a highly esteemed virtue that every new aspirant is advised to take the Bodhisattva Vow, which speaks of self-sacrifice and solidarity. Adapted from the Mahayana Bodhisattva Vow, the KYCO version is as follows: “All beings without number, I vow to liberate. Endless blind passions, I vow to uproot. Dharma Doors beyond measure, I vow to penetrate. The great way of Buddha, I vow to attain.”

7) Cantonese, rather than Mandarin, is the lingua franca of the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur.

8) In this context, wenming refers to the Chinese intellectual discourse of civilization that emerged during the late nineteenth century where elites from inside and outside the imperial court were concerned about the “backwardness” of Chinese society. They had contesting ideas about modernizing and reforming the government as well as differing ideologies regarding sovereignty and civilization (see also Duara 2003, 89–129).

9) Jiaohua refers to the moral transformation of the person as well as society. The term is rooted in the Confucianist imperial ideology “to morally transform by means of virtuous rule” (Duara 2003, 106). It emphasizes social propriety and obligations rooted in cosmological “truths,” and is deeply connected to the discourse of wenming or civilization.

10) Waiwang literally means “outer king” (Duara 2003, 108). It is premised on a Chinese spiritual dialectic of the internal or “inner sage” (neisheng) i.e. the mind: emotions and thoughts, and the external or “outer king” (waiwang) of the body: behavior and conduct.


Vol. 4, No. 3, PALANCA-TAN et al.

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Tourism and Crime: Evidence from the Philippines

Rosalina Palanca-Tan,* Len Patrick Dominic M. Garces,* Angelica Nicole C. Purisima,* and Angelo Christian L. Zaratan*

* Department of Economics, Ateneo de Manila University, Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City, 1108, Metro Manila, Philippines

Corresponding author (Palanca-Tan)’s e-mail: rtan[at]

Using panel data gathered from 16 regions of the Philippines for the period 2009–11, this paper investigates the relationship between tourism and crime. The findings of the study show that the relation between tourism and crime may largely depend on the characteristics of visitors and the types of crime. For all types of crime and their aggregate, no significant correlation between the crime rate (defined as the number of crime cases divided by population) and total tourist arrivals is found. However, a statistically significant positive relation is found between foreign tourism and robbery and theft cases as well as between overseas Filipino tourism and robbery. On the other hand, domestic tourism is not significantly correlated with any of the four types of crimes. These results, together with a strong evidence of the negative relationship between crime and the crime clearance efficiency, present much opportunity for policy intervention in order to minimize the crime externality of the country’s tourism-led development strategy.

Keywords: tourism, crime, negative externality, sustainable development


The tourism industry in the Philippines has expanded rapidly in recent years due primarily to intensified marketing of the country’s rich geographical and biological diversity and of its historical and cultural heritage. In 2000–10, the tourism sector consistently made substantial contribution to the Philippine economy, averaging about 5.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) on an annual basis. In 2011, tourism revenues further increased by 10.2% from 2010, and its share in GDP inched up to 5.9% (National Statistical Coordination Board 2012). In the same year, the tourism sector provided 778,000 employment opportunities nationwide. Most recently, the count of foreign visitor arrivals for January–August 2013 reached 3.2 million, an increase of about 11.3% from 2.9 million visitors recorded in the same period in 2012 (Department of Tourism 2013). The Philippine tourism industry is expected to continue to expand in the coming years. From 2012 to 2022, travel and tourism contribution to GDP is forecasted to rise at an annual average of 6.5%, and its employment generation by 3.3% (World Travel and Tourism Council 2012).

With its extensive forward and backward linkages—transport, hotel and restaurant, wholesale and retail trade, banking and finance, construction, food processing, agriculture and livestock, manufacturing, etc., the tourism industry promises to have a high income generating potential that can spur growth of local economies and the national economy as a whole. The sector, however, is associated with negative externalities such as environmental degradation and higher incidence of crimes, social costs that are shouldered by residents of tourist destinations in terms of lower quality of life (Pizam 1982). Notwithstanding the significant positive contribution of the tourism industry in the growth of the Philippine economy and as the goal of development planners must be no less than over-all societal welfare with income and quality of life components, there is a need to properly assess the social costs associated with the tourism sector. For a tourism-led development policy to effectively and sustainably raise people’s welfare, it must be coupled with measures to address the sector’s negative environmental and social consequences, if these exist.

The positive link between tourism and crime is suggested in the Routine Activity Theory on Crime developed by Cohen and Felson (1979). Tourists are “suitable targets,” one of three essential elements that are necessary for the success of predatory activities. Fujii and Mak (1980) point to the characteristics of tourists that make them highly desirable targets—they carry money and valuable objects, they are on a holiday mood and hence tend to be less prudent, and they are perceived to be “safer” targets since they rarely report crime to the police. Ryan (1993) points that some tourism activity arises from the demand for illegal goods and services, as in the case of sex tourism (Johnson 2011) and tourism for substance abuse, a phenomenon that is also suspected to prevail in the Philippines. Becker’s (1968) quantitative economic model of criminal activity predicts that the incidence of crime increases with higher expected net returns from committing crimes. Expected returns increase with more tourists who commonly possess money and other valuables (expected income from crime) and who are less likely to report crimes (lower probability of detection).

Empirical studies done in both developing and developed countries lend some support to the hypothesized positive relation between tourism and crime. McPheters and Stronge (1974) found that the season of crime coincided with the season of tourism in Miami, USA. Jud (1975) likewise confirmed that growth of tourism-based businesses had a strong positive relationship with crime incidence in his study of 32 states in Mexico. Pizam’s study (1982) using data from 50 states in the United States found significant positive relationship between tourism expenditures and crime incidence in four (namely, crime against property, robbery, rape, and aggravated assault) out of nine categories of crime investigated in the study. A high correlation between tourist arrivals and criminal movements is also found by Wallace (2009) in the case of Tobago. Most recently, Biagi et al. (2012) using a panel data of Italian provinces for the years 1985–2003 showed that tourist areas have a significantly higher occurrence of crime than non-tourist areas in the short and long-run.

There are likewise studies that suggest a negative relation between tourism and crime. Grinols et al. (2011) present two theoretical considerations for a negative link. One, visitors increase demand for goods and services, which can lead to increase in wages and employment for low-skilled workers. Two, a place that is frequented by tourists is likely to experience and undergo modernization and development programs which can make the area less conducive to criminal activity. Thus, the effect of tourism on crime may be ambiguous, depending on the relative strengths of the positive and negative effects. Grinols et al. use these arguments to explain why some tourist types yield no impact on crime in his study of visitors in national parks of counties in the United States.

Empirical literature on Philippine tourism has so far been focused on the performance and contribution of the industry to Philippine economic growth (see, for instance, Lagman 2008; Henderson 2011; and Yu 2012). To the authors’ knowledge, there has been no recent paper linking crime in the Philippines to tourism. This paper aims to fill this gap in the literature. Using regression analysis, this paper investigates whether or not crime and tourism in the Philippines are correlated with each other.1) This is done using panel data gathered from 16 regions of the country for the period 2009–11. Establishing a positive link between tourism activities and incidence of crime would indicate a need to design and institute appropriate measures to sustain tourism-led development.

An Economic Analysis of Crime

This paper adopts the economic framework of Becker (1968) in analyzing the determinants of criminal behavior. An individual i chooses to commit an offense depending on the utility Ui he expects to gain from the criminal act:



where pi is the probability of being caught and convicted, yi is income that can be realized from committing the crime, and fi is the monetary equivalent of punishment if convicted. The partial derivatives of the expected utility function with respect to each of the three variables are:



An increase in the probability of conviction as well as an increase in punishment if convicted reduce the expected utility from criminal activities while an increase in income from criminal activities raises the expected utility.

Becker then specifies the number of offenses committed by an individual Oi as a function of the probability of conviction (pi), punishment (fi) and a catch all variable denoted by ui which may include income from criminal activities (yi), income from legal activities, among others. Probability of conviction and punishment provides disincentives for an individual to engage in criminal activities, thereby reducing the number of offenses; while income from criminal activities encourages criminal acts and hence, increases the number of offenses. Availability of legal sources of income (a factor that is captured in ui) may also reduce Oi.

The total number of offenses, O, is the sum of all Oi, and is a function of the (weighted) average values of pi, fi, and ui,



The Routine Activity Theory offers a sociological explanation of the determinants of crime. The theory proposes that the level of criminal activity in an area is a function of the dynamics between and among certain groups of people in a particular geographical location. It predicts that crime rate will increase in a community if motivated offenders and suitable targets converge in a particular time and place in the absence of capable guardians (Cohen and Felson 1979). It emphasizes spatial considerations, that is, the visibility of desirable materials and the ease of access, in the persistence of crime.

The economic and sociological frameworks above both provide a basis to expect a positive link between crime and tourism. Tourism, which involves the influx of people for a holiday, carrying money and valuable objects and with less prudent behavior are suitable targets for criminal activity. In Becker’s economic framework, tourism increases the expected gain from criminal activity (tourists have more valuables) and is associated with lower probability of detection (tourist are less likely to report crimes).

This paper investigates the link between crime and tourism through regression analysis for a cross section of 16 regions in the Philippines. A balanced panel data set for the three years, 2009, 2010, and 2011 for all 16 regions is used. The empirical model is specified as



The subscripts j and t refer to the region and year, respectively. The βs are the coefficients to be estimated, while εj,t and ηj are the error term and the region fixed effect, respectively. The dependent variable Crime is per capita crime calculated as the number of crime cases in the region divided by the region’s population. Criminal reporting in the Philippines classifies crime into index and non-index crimes. Index crimes are further classified into crimes against persons (which include murder, homicide, physical injury, and rape) and crime against property (further categorized into robbery, theft, car-napping, and cattle rustling). Non-index crimes are all other crimes not falling under any of the above-mentioned categories (eg: smuggling, prostitution, illegal drug trade, and abuse). Separate regression runs are done for total crime and certain crime categories that can possibly target and/or involve tourists, namely, crime against persons, robbery, theft, and non-index crime.

The theoretical model predicts that Crime is related positively with Tourism (β1>0) and negatively with Deterrence, the probability of being caught and convicted (β2<0). Tourism is defined as the number of tourist arrivals, classified into three types: foreign, domestic, and overseas Filipino. The latter two categories are distinguished from each other on the basis of residency. If a Filipino holds residency in the Philippines, he is considered a domestic tourist. On the other hand, a Filipino who resides (at least temporarily) in another country, say for work or study, is counted as an overseas Filipino tourist. Tourist traffic is calculated by the Department of Tourism from data on hotel check-ins, entry into tourist areas such as parks, and restaurant traffic.

Deterrence or the probability of being caught and convicted is proxied by the crime clearance rate, a data series generated by the Philippine National Police and reported in the Philippine Statistical Yearbook. The crime clearance rate is calculated as the ratio of the number of crimes for which a case has been filed to the total number of crimes reported. This ratio reflects police and law enforcers’ knowledge of the local environment and the efficiency of criminal investigation and hence, can serve as an indicator of the probability of detection and conviction (Marselli and Vannini 1997).

Cantor and Land (1985) provide theoretical arguments for the likely influence of macroeconomic variables on crime rate. The rate of Unemployment will be positively related with Crime (β3>0) if criminal activity provides an alternative income source. Brenner (1978) proposes that the inability of an individual to maintain a particular standard of living as a consequence of becoming unemployed may lead to criminal acts. Regional Gross Domestic Product or income (GDP) and GDP Growth rate can serve as measures of economic prosperity in the region and hence may serve as indicators of the potential for generating income through both legal and illegal means (hence β4 and β5 may be > or < 0). Dummy variables for the years 2010 and 2011 are included to capture period effects.

The Variance Inflation Factor (VIF) test is used to rule out possible multicollinearity in the regression analyses. The VIF of a regressor Xi is calculated as



where Ri2 is the coefficient of determination obtained when Xi is regressed against all the other independent variables. A VIF of at least 10 is indicative of severe multicollinearity problems in the data, which require correction.

Tourism and Crime: A Preliminary, Descriptive Analysis

Demographic and Economic Profile of the Regions

The Philippines is divided into 17 administrative regions: 8 of which are in Luzon (National Capital Region-NCR, Cordillera Administrative Region-CAR, Ilocos-I, Cagayan Valley-II, Central Luzon-III, CALABARZON-IVA, MIMAROPA-IVB, and Bicol-V), 3 in Visayas (Western Visayas-VI, Central Visayas-VII, and Eastern Visayas-VIII), and 6 in Mindanao (Zamboanga Peninsula-IX, Northern Mindanao-X, Davao-XI, SOCCSKSARGEN-XII, Caraga-XIII, and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao-ARMM2)). Table 1 presents demographic and economic data on these regions.


Table 1 Demographic and Economic Profile of the Regions


NCR or Metropolitan Manila, is the center of culture, economy, and government in the Philippines. The country’s population is highly concentrated in this region, accounting for 13% of the nation’s population but only 0.2% of its land area. Still posting modest growth, NCR contributes 36% of the country’s GDP. Although per capita GDP in the NCR is way above those of the other regions, it has the highest unemployment rate. Second to NCR in terms of population density and economic activity is CALABARZON, the southern neighbor of NCR. In recent years, many of the industries in Metro Manila have moved to this region, making it the fastest growing region in the country economically. Other growth centers in Luzon are Central Luzon, Ilocos, and CAR, all of which are to the north of NCR. In the Visayas, the lead region is Central Visayas which includes Cebu, the second metropolis in the country. In Mindanao, Northern Mindanao and Davao are the lead regions. The poorest region (lowest per capita GDP) in the country is Bicol, which is located in an area that is regularly visited by typhoons. It can be observed from Table 1 that unemployment rate tends to be highest in the most highly urbanized and industrialized regions (NCR, CALABARZON, Central Luzon, and Central Visayas). This is due to in-migration of people from rural areas in search of better economic opportunities.

Table 2 reveals an over-all concentration of crime in the NCR and Central Luzon. Metro Manila, the foremost metropolis in the Philippines, comprises much of NCR while Central Luzon, immediately to the north of NCR, was the location of the two former US naval bases in the country (Clark, Pampanga and Subic, Zambales). Next in line are the relatively more urbanized regions of CALABARZON, Western and Central Visayas. Only data on crime categories that are most likely to involve tourists, namely, crimes against persons, robbery, and theft, are presented in Table 2. In terms of number of crimes against persons, the top three regions are Central Luzon (14%), NCR (11%) and Calabarzon (10%), which are among the most industrialized and urbanized regions in Luzon. Occurrences of robbery and theft are highest in NCR, followed by Central Visayas, and then, Central Luzon, likewise the regions that are relatively more advanced economically.


Table 2Crime (number of occurrences) and Crime Clearance Efficiency,* Average for 2009–11


With regard to deterrence, proxied by the crime clearance efficiency rate or the ratio of the number of crimes for which a case has been filed to the total number of crimes, the top three ranking regions are NCR (64%), SOCCSKSARGEN (50%), and Ilocos (45%). Remarkably, the latter two regions have relatively lower crime shares in the national total.

In the three years, 2009–11, there were more than 65 million tourist arrivals in the whole country, most of which are domestic tourists (52 million or 79% of the total) and only a fifth (about 13 million) are foreigners. The most popular destinations for domestic tourists are CALABARZON, Bicol, and Western and Central Visayas. Due to its proximity to Metro Manila (only 1–4 hour land travel), CALABARZON is an affordable vacation spot with its natural attractions (waterfalls in Pagsanjan; mountains, lakes, and hotsprings in Laguna, Tagaytay, and Quezon; some beaches in Batangas), historical sites (Cavite and Laguna), and colorful festivals and religious celebrations, among Metro Manila residents for day tours and weekend holidays. Bicol, which is a little farther but still accessible by land travel from Metro Manila, is another favorite destination because of its beautiful beaches and volcanoes, centuries-old stone churches, and the Camsur Watersports Complex. Those who have more resources to spend travel by plane to Western and Central Visayas for the famous beaches of Cebu and Boracay.

Foreign tourists, on the other hand, are concentrated in NCR, Central Visayas, Bicol, and Western Visayas. Metro Manila and Cebu in Central Visayas are the entry points for the foreign tourists. For foreign tourists, the white sand beaches and historical sites in Central Visayas (Cebu and Bohol), Bicol (Camsur), and Western Visayas (Boracay) are the most alluring attractions. Overseas Filipino tourists, like foreign tourists, are mostly attracted to Western Visayas, Bicol, Central Visayas, and NCR.

A cursory look at data presented in Tables 2 and 3 indicates relatively higher crimes in tourist areas. The list of top ranking regions in crime is more or less the same as the list of top ranking regions in tourist arrivals.


Table 3Tourist Arrivals


Location Quotient
To appraise the incidence of crime and tourist arrivals in each region relative to the national average, location quotients (LQ) are calculated using the following formulas (Biagi et al. 2012):



where i refers to a particular region and Total denotes variable values for the whole country. LQs for each region for each of the three years are calculated, resulting in 48 LQtourism and 48 LQcrime. Plotting points for corresponding LQtourism and LQcrime and drawing lines through the median values of LQtourism and LQcrime, the graph is divided into four quadrants: quadrant 1—high LQtourism, high LQcrime combinations; quadrant 2—low LQtourism and high LQcrime; quadrant 3—low LQtourism, low LQcrime; and quadrant 4—high LQtourism, low LQcrime (Fig. 1). Out of the 48 points (LQtourism and LQcrime combinations), 30 are in quadrants 1 and 3. The regions of Ilocos (I), Cagayan Valley (II), MIMAROPA (IVB), Eastern Visayas (VIII), and Caraga (XIII) appear to be low-crime, low-tourism regions while CAR, Western and Central Visayas (VI and VII), Northern Mindanao (X), and Davao (XI) are the high-tourism, high-crime regions. Central Luzon is consistently a high crime area with relatively less tourism activities. NCR, CALABARZON, and the Bicol region are tourist areas with relatively low incidence of crime. NCR and CALABARZON are the two most highly urbanized and developed regions in the main island of Luzon. Both CALABARZON and Bicol are highly popular for domestic and overseas Filipino tourists. Our LQ analysis is indicative of some degree and forms of direct relationship between crime and tourism which is further investigated in the regression analysis of the next section.


Fig. 1 Location Quotients for Tourism and Crime


Econometric Analysis

Two regressions runs are done for each of the five dependent crime rate variables, namely, (1) total crime, (2) crime against persons, (3) robbery, (4) theft, and (5) non-index crimes. The two runs differ only in the independent tourism variable/s used. Total tourist arrivals are used in the first run, while the three categories of tourist arrivals (namely, foreign, overseas Filipino, and domestic tourist arrivals) are included as three separate independent variables in the second run. Hence, a total of 10 equations are estimated using the method of ordinary least squares. The results are presented in Table 4.


Table 4 Regression Results


The last two columns of Table 4 give the VIF of the regressors. All calculated VIFs are much less than the critical value of 10, indicating the absence of multicollinearity. This means that while it is possible that some of the independent variables are correlated with one another, the extent to which they are linearly related is not large enough to render the parameter estimates unreliable as well as necessitate the omission of any of the regressors.

The coefficient of the total number of tourist arrivals is not significant in all five regression runs for aggregate crime and four categories of crime. However, when the number of tourist arrivals is broken down into foreign, overseas Filipino, and domestic, some significant relationships surface. The number of foreign tourist arrivals has a significant positive relationship with robbery and theft cases, as predicted by economic and sociological theories. The estimated value of the coefficient of foreign tourism in the equation for robbery cases implies that an increase in foreign tourists of 1,000 translates into an increase in incidence of robbery cases of 4 per 10,000,000 population. In the case of NCR where population is roughly 12 million, 1,000 more foreign tourists translates into 5 more robbery cases. The magnitude of the coefficient of foreign tourism in the theft equation is about double that in the robbery equation; an increase in foreign tourists of 1,000 translates into an increase in incidence of theft of 8 per 10,000,000 population (10 additional theft cases in the NCR).

The number of overseas Filipino arrivals, on the other hand, is significantly and negatively correlated with robbery. For every 1,000 increase in overseas Filipino tourists, incidence of robbery cases falls by 3 per 1,000,000 population. Again, taking NCR as an example, 1,000 additional overseas Filipino tourists is associated with 36 less robbery cases. It could be that criminals are not particularly attracted to overseas Filipino tourists as they are more cautious and also, more likely to report crimes, relative to foreign tourists. It is also possible that these overseas Filipino tourists, being more familiar with local conditions in different parts of the Philippines, would avoid crime areas. The number of domestic tourists, is not found to be significantly correlated with any type of crime.

The coefficient of Deterrence (crime clearance efficiency) is consistently significant and negative in all 10 regressions. A region with a higher proportion of crimes reported and investigated tends to have a lower rate of criminal cases.3) This supports the theoretical proposition that the probability of detection and conviction is indirectly related to crime incidence.

Per capita GDP also turns out to be significantly and positively related with aggregate crime, robbery and non-index crime. Regions with higher per capita GDP have more crimes. This is consistent with the “opportunity effect” argument which asserts that the decision to commit crime depends on the availability of target “goods” and the perceived profitability of illegal activities which increases with income and affluence in the community. The significant negative correlation between GDP growth rate and theft, on the other hand, may be reflecting the potential of the people in the region to generate income through legal means and hence, lower rate of theft. Unexpectedly, regions with higher unemployment turn out to have lower rates of aggregate crime, robbery and non-index crime.4)

The significant negative sign of the coefficients of the dummy variable for the year 2010 for all types of crimes except non-index crime indicates that there are less crimes of these categories in 2010 compared to 2009. There is a further significant reduction in all types of crimes (non-index crime included) in 2011. Hence, the crime rates in the different regions are generally higher in 2009 compared to 2010 and 2011 which may be reflective of increased effort and improvements in general peace and order condition nationwide during the Aquino administration.


The study reveals that only certain types of tourists are correlated with certain types of crimes in the Philippines. Foreign tourism is positively associated with robbery and theft while overseas Filipino tourism is negatively related with robbery.

Regression analysis of the panel data set reveals that regions with more foreign tourist arrivals experience higher rates of robbery and theft. It appears that robbers and thieves distinguish between overseas Filipino and foreign travelers, with foreigners considered to be more “suitable” targets associated with a lower propensity to report a crime and more material possessions. These results may also be reflective of overseas Filipino tourists’ knowledge and awareness of the conditions in different areas of the Philippines and their decisions to choose the relatively developed and safe regions. Potential offenders, aware of these traits of overseas Filipino tourists, may be labeling these tourists as “less suitable targets” and are thus, not “motivated” to pursue crimes in areas frequented by this type of tourists.

Overall, the findings of the study show that the extent of the impact of tourism on crime largely depends on the characteristics of the visitors and the type of crime, a conclusion that is similar to Pizam’s (1982). This implies that efforts in abating the tourism sector’s crime externality must take into consideration the demographics of tourist flows. More resources can be directed towards areas that are frequented by foreign tourists. The study also provides strong statistical evidence of the negative relationship between crime and the deterrence factor, the crime clearance efficiency rate of police forces in the Philippines. This potential deterrent factor must be put to maximum use in areas where they are most essential.

Furthermore, the study provides some empirical support for the hypothesized influence of macroeconomic factors. The significant positive relationship of crime with per capita GDP highlights the better opportunities criminals are faced given the more active circulation of goods and services.

The analysis in this paper is limited to the determination of the existence or non-existence of a correlation between different types of crimes and different types of tourists. It is recommended that a further study on the direction of causality between crime and tourism be undertaken to validate the preliminary findings and recommendations of this paper.

Accepted: February 3, 2015


Becker, Gary S. 1968. Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach. Journal of Political Economy 76: 169–217.

Biagi, Bianca; Brandano, Maria Giovanna; and Detotto, Claudio 2012. The Effect of Tourism on Crime in Italy: A Dynamic Panel Approach. Economics: The Open-Access, Open-Assessment E-Journal 6: 2012–2025, accessed December 2013,

Brenner, Harvey M. 1978. Economic Crises and Crime. In Crimes in Society, edited by Leonard Savitz and Norman Johnston, pp. 555–572. New York: Wiley.

Bureau of Agricultural Statistics. Database, accessed in December 2013,

Cantor, David; and Land, Kenneth C. 1985. Unemployment and Crime Rates in the Post-World War II United States: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis. American Sociological Review 50: 317–332.

Cohen, Lawrence E.; and Felson, Marcus. 1979. Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach. American Sociological Review 44(4): 588–608, accessed December 2013,

Department of Tourism (DOT). 2013. Visitor Arrivals Reached the 3-Million Mark in August 2013. October 17, 2013 DOT Press Release, accessed December 1, 2013,

Fujii, Edwin T.; and Mak, James. 1980. Tourism and Crime: Implications for Regional Development Policy. Regional Studies 14(1): 27–36, accessed December 2013,

Grinols, Earl L.; Mustard, David B.; and Staha, Melissa. 2011. How Do Visitors Affect Crime? Journal of Quantitative Criminology 27: 363–378.

Henderson, Joan C. 2011. Tourism Development and Politics in the Philippines. Tourismos: An International Multidisciplinary Journal of Tourism 6(2): 159–173.

Johnson, Afrooz Kaviani. 2011. International Child Sex Tourism: Enhancing the Legal Response in Southeast Asia. International Journal of Children’s Rights 19(1): 55–79.

Jud, Donald G. 1975. Tourism and Crime in Mexico. Social Sciences Quarterly 56(2): 324–330, accessed December 2013,

Lagman, Oscar. 2008. The Philippine Tourism Industry: Adjustments and Upgrading. De La Salle University Angelo King Institute for Business, Economics, Research and Development Working Paper Series 2008–08. Manila: De La Salle University.

Marselli, Ricardo; and Vannini, Mario. 1997. Estimating a Crime Equation in the Presence of Organized Crime: Evidence from Italy. International Review of Law and Economics 17(1): 89–113.

McPheters, Lee R.; and Stronge, William B. 1974. Crime as an Environmental Externality of Tourism: Miami, Florida. Land Economics 50(2): 288–292, accessed December 2013,

National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB). 2012. Contribution of Tourism Industry to the Economy Posts 5.9 Percent in 2011. November 26, 2012 NSCB Press Release, accessed November 18, 2013,

―. Various years. Philippine Statistical Yearbook. Manila: National Statistical Coordination Broad.

Pizam, Abraham. 1982. Tourism and Crime: Is There a Relationship? Journal of Travel Research 20(3): 7–10.

Ryan, Chris. 1993. Crime, Violence, Terrorism and Tourism. Tourism Management 14(3): 173–183, accessed December 2013,

Wallace, Aurora. 2009. Mapping City Crime and the New Aesthetic of Danger. Journal of Visual Culture 8(1): 5–24.

World Travel and Tourism Council. 2012. Travel & Tourism: Economic Impact 2012 (Philippines). London: Sovereign Court.

Yu, Krista Danielle. 2012. An Economic Analysis of the Philippine Tourism Industry. DLSU Business & Economic Review 22(1): 119–128.

1) The analysis in this paper is limited to the determination of the existence or non-existence of a relationship/correlation between different types of crimes and different types of tourists. This limitation is imposed by the difficulty of finding an appropriate instrumental variable for tourism that can address the possible reverse causality between crime and tourism.

2) Due to lack of data on crime and tourism, ARMM is not included in the study.

3) The crime clearance rate, calculated as the ratio of the number of crimes for which a case has been filed to the total number of crimes reported, is generated and reported in the Philippine Statistical Yearbook by designated government agencies primarily as an indicator of the efficiency of the criminal prevention system or the probability of crime detection and conviction. However, possible under-reporting of crimes in the Philippines may result in artificially high values for this proxy variable. In such a case, public expenditure on police/military may be a more appropriate variable. Lack of regional data on police/military expenditures prevented the authors from running regressions using this alternative deterrence variable.

4) In an alternative regression run where number of crimes, not per capita crime (number of crimes divided by population), is used as the dependent variable, unemployment has the expected significant and positive relationship with crime. These contrasting findings on the relationship between unemployment and crime warrants a further study, preferably, with longer time period coverage in order to track the long-term dynamics between unemployment and crime. At the outset, it can be supposed that unemployment will not instantly convert an individual into a criminal. But persistent unemployment may eventually lead to people resorting to illegal income generating activities.