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Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Quynh Huong NGUYEN


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Making a Living between Crises and Ceremonies in Tana Toraja: The Practice of Everyday Life of a South Sulawesi Highland Community in Indonesia
Edwin de Jong
Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Indonesia is well-known for its diversity of culture, languages, and 300 different ethnic groups (Geertz 1963). The Torajan are located in Tana Toraja, a mountainous region in the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi and known for beautiful scenery and spectacular funeral ceremonies (de Jong 2013). There are many books about Tana Toraja, but Edwin de Jong’s Making a Living between Crises and Ceremonies in Tana Toraja has taken a specific socio-economic approach when describing in detail the living situation of Torajans, who continue to engage in costly ceremonies even in times of economic struggle.

The book starts with the scene of a loudly extravagant funeral ceremony in Tana Toraja, with tens of buffalo being slaughtered. In this chapter, the author questioned how the Torajans can maintain the expenses for such costly ritual ceremonies after the economic and political crisis in Indonesia during in the late 1990s. Subsequent chapters of the book then offer answers to this central question.

Making a Living between Crises and Ceremonies in Tana Toraja is structured in nine chronological ordered chapters, which include all kinds of cultural and historical events. Chapter 1 describes the paradoxes and complexities of the Torajan through socio-economic approaches. Chapter 2 introduces the author’s analytical framework and methodology that aims to analyze the dynamic between culture, social structure, and economic activities in Torajan livelihoods. Chapter 3 explains how important the Torajan community and networks are outside the homeland. The income of Torajan migrants is a main financial contribution for the living and ritual ceremonies in Tana Toraja. Chapter 4 presents the historical background of Tana Toraja and the influence of elites and the noble class on the socio-political, economic, and cultural domain in Toraja society. Chapter 5 shows the power of the local government and tradition leaders in the concept of current democratic elections. Chapter 6 illustrates the importance of the tongkonan (ancestral house) as a symbol of social order and social stratification in Torajan life. Chapter 7 presents the economic activities, socio-political organization, and local culture of Torajans in Palipu and Kondo. Chapter 8 emphasizes the sense of siri (honor), which controls all the economic activities and social structure of Torajans. Chapter 9 can be regarded as the conclusion for the book—it emphasizes the relationship between economic activities and death ceremonies and rituals, encapsulated by the notion that “there is no life without the dead, and the meaning of life is a good death” (p. 295).

Using the methodology of ethnography with in-depth interviews with Torajans, and by offering readers true accounts of Torajans, de Jong paints a vivid picture of the struggle between their financial situation and the expenses of ritual ceremonies and funerals. The author collected many stories of Torajans living in the heartland and the migrants living abroad. Indeed, what connects both the domestic and international Torajan is their common goal of keeping a sense of community and honor—known as siri—by contributing their time and financial resources for the continued performance of rituals and ceremonies. As the book shows, rituals and ceremonies form the main expenditure of Torajans who merantau (emigrate), particularly to the regions of Makassar, Palu, Poso, Rongkong, Palopo, Pongrang, Buton, and Pare-pare. This volume’s most significant contribution is in its explanation of siri, and how this a sense of community governs many of the economic activities and social organizations in Tana Toraja. Through siri, Torajans accumulate power and prestige, provided they have enough money to cover the extravagant ceremonies. However, because of siri, some Torajans must accept the financial burden of paying for these ceremonies and accumulate a lifetime’s debt. This siri mindset is the main purpose of life for Torajans, not only the ones who are located in the homeland, but also Torajan who are merantau (emigrated or relocated). The population of Torajans living abroad is larger than in the homeland. Despite this, the sense of community remains very solid among the Torajan community and their networks. Torajan migrants are well-connected and support those living in Tana Toraja as well as help them maintain their ritual ceremonies.

The author makes mention of the cultural disconnect among the young migrant Torajans, who cannot understand why their families continue to send money back to the homeland in financial support of these ceremonies. However, a deeper and more detailed study and explanation of this cross-generational phenomenon may have added another dimension to this volume—de Jong could have examined the future of crises and ceremonies for the Torajans. Instead of concluding the book with a set notion in that these ceremonies would simply continue to be maintained, the author could have also provided a possible future scenario regarding the next generation of migrant Torajans; for example, changes in financial contributions due to gradually changing cultural experiences based on his current findings of the Torajan living abroad. As more and more Torajans continue living outside the homeland, would the growing disconnect cause future generations of Torajans to slowly cease embracing and maintaining the culture, or would they merely adjust their methods of financial contribution in accordance with the modernizing world? These would have been interesting questions the author could have examined.

This book comes with a hard quality cover featuring a photograph of the Torajan conducting a ritual ceremony. The author, who has been researching Tana Toraja for many years, provided many professional photographs, maps, tables, and other graphics that well-illustrate Tana Toraja. In my opinion, Making a Living between Crises and Ceremonies in Tana Toraja is the best reference on the culture and economic development of Tana Toraja. It would be useful material for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of the historical and current economic situation for ritual ceremonies of ethnicity in Southeast Asia.

Quynh Huong Nguyen
Graduate School of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University


Geertz, Hildred. 1963. Indonesian Cultures and Communities, edited by Ruth McVey. New Haven: HRAF Press.


Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Rizal G. BUENDIA


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Moral Politics in the Philippines: Inequality, Democracy and the Urban Poor
Wataru Kusaka
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2017.

In Moral Politics in the Philippines: Inequality, Democracy and the Urban Poor, author and Japanese scholar Wataru Kusaka eruditely examines Philippine politics and contemporary democracy. Divided into seven chapters apart from the Introduction and an Addendum (on Duterte’s initial year as President), this book focuses on social movements and struggles of an assortment of civil society (CS) with and against the state on the one hand, and hegemonic contestation between and among varying types of CSs associated with moral politics, on the other. He defines moral politics as “politics that creates groups that are seen either ‘good’ or ‘evil’ and draw a demarcation line between the two” (p. 1).

Aimed at exploring the dynamics of social movements against the backdrop of the “hegemony of the elite” as “contested by various counter-hegemonies of CSs,” the volume offers an alternative explanation on the weakness of Philippine democracy and prevalent social inequalities, contrary to the dominant view of “interest politics” which is simply centered on the uneven distribution and control of resources (pp. 5–6). Likewise, Kusaka challenges a number of conventional theories that analyze Filipino politics—notably “patron-clientelism” of Carl Lande and Remigio Agpalo; “neo-colonial dependency” of Renato Constantino and Gary Hawes; “elite democracy” or “patrimonialism” of Nathan Quimpo; “rent-capitalism” of Paul Hutchcroft; “bossism” of John Sidel; and “machine politics” of Tekeshi Kawanaka, among others—as inadequate and inappropriate to explain and capture the dynamics of Philippine politics and democracy.

The author argues—through ethnographic research (participant-observation) at an urban poor community in Pechayan, Barangay Old Capital Site, Quezon City covering the period of April 2002 to April 2003, and key informant interviews conducted between 2008 and 2010, and using his “hegemonic struggle in the dual public spheres” as the analytical framework (Chap 2, pp. 21–49) and constructivist approach—that Philippine society and politics are fundamentally divided between two public spheres. These are: the civic or middle-class sphere; and masses or impoverished class sphere. The spheres are in constant struggle for hegemony and characterized by antagonistic “we–they” relationship. They are drawn between classes based on the distribution of economic, occupational, and educational differences as well as cultural variances, and moralities (divergent concepts of “good” and “evil” which is fluid and changing, contingent on the relationship between social groups constructed through hegemonic struggles).

Kusaka claims that an antagonistic relationship created between these spheres are of two types. The first is the “moral division of the nation” which occurs when the class and moral lines overlap, hence transforming class antagonism into moral antagonism, i.e., conflict “between ‘citizens’ or middle class and ‘masses’ in the civic sphere; and between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ in the mass sphere” (p. 6). In discursive practice, this type of antagonism results in “civic exclusivism” (dispute between “good” citizens and “bad” masses) and “populism” (divergence between “good” masses and “evil” rich) seeking hegemony over each other in the civic and mass spheres respectively (p. 48). The second type is the “moral solidarity of the nation” which refers to the subdued antagonism between “bad politicians and good ‘people’” united against cronyism, corruption, and traditional politicians (p. 6). The unification of the nation, transcending differences between classes, extends the hegemony of “civic inclusiveness” into the civic and mass spheres. This is what Kusaka contends as “moral nationalism.” Although national unity is aspired, it fails to resolve the issue of inequality and powerlessness of the poor (p. 47).

The author further argues that a “contact zone” intersects between the mass and civic spheres which provides “the medium for discourse.” The “interactions” are said to blur the moral demarcation line and facilitate attempts to mediate the division between spheres (p. 6). It is the area where members of the civic and mass spheres converge and “discourses one another, giving rise to diverse power relationship” (p. 35). It is also the zone where power between spheres is deliberated and shared “to pursue social reform through social movements” (p. 44).

Applying his analytical framework through the three “People Power” revolution cases—February 1986 (deposing of President Marcos); January 2001 (ousting of President Estrada); and April 2001 (attempt to re-install Estrada) (Chapter 3)—the electoral politics (Chapter 4), and the case of urban governance (Chapter 5), Kusaka demonstrates the deleterious effects of “moral division” to Philippine democracy. Chapter 6 investigates how elite rule was restored and preserved with the re-emergence of the “moral nationalism” during the 2010 presidential elections with Benigno Aquino III as the President. Kusaka wraps up and summarizes his arguments on moral politics in his final chapter. In it, he concludes that the deficiency of democracy, perpetuation of elitism, and inequality in the Philippines is insufficiently elucidated by “interest politics” but better clarified by the moralization of politics. He states:

. . . the moralization of politics threatens democracy either by intensifying antagonistic “we/they” relations to the extent that it advocates the exclusion and eradication of the other as “enemy,” or by depoliticizing socioeconomic inequality to perpetuate elite rule in the name of the people’s moral solidarity. (pp. 237–238)

He adds that “when multiple publics formulate moral antagonism against their respective ‘others’, opposition by counter publics may not only fail to ameliorate inequalities, but also exacerbate the moral division of the nation and pose a threat to democracy” (p. 254).

Finally, the book proposes “an expansion of the contact zones between multiple public spheres that enables diverse people to interact with one another,” deferment of “conclusive definitions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,” and the construction of “an order of mutual life-support, a ‘soft’ mutuality nurtured through care-based relationships and spontaneous compassion for the vulnerabilities of life” (p. 259). While Kusaka admits that these prescriptions are simply suggestions hence their effectiveness remains to be tested through further cases studies, he believes that they constitute a worthy undertaking for future research.

The book’s Addendum on Duterte (pp. 260–264) employs a discourse on moral nationalism. It characterizes President Duterte as a “social bandit” whose administration intends to rejig the existing system of elitism and inequality into a more plural and equitable society through the power of the state exercising authority beyond what the law or constitution provides. The support of the masses to Duterte’s approach in governance reflects the frustration of the marginalized sectors of society over the inability of previous leaders to address their age-long socio-economic problems. Duterte’s populism is predicated on the notion that “people” are morally good and the “elite” are morally corrupt. The author thus conjectures that people prefer to stake their future on the hands of a strong leader rather than on the politicized and weak institutions.

Kusaka’s book is instructive not only for offering a new perspective in analyzing the state of Philippine democracy and widespread inequalities, but also for challenging the dominant neoliberal worldview perceived to promote economic growth and democracy, and the role of the middle class adjudged to uphold social equality, freedom, and democracy. The use and application of the “hegemonic struggle in the dual public sphere” as the study’s framework in examining the dynamics and nature of interactions of social movements with the state on the one hand, and between and among CSs on the other hand, is basically a rejection of oft-cited theoretical lens in explaining Philippine politics, i.e., patron-clientelism and patrimonialism, elite democracy, rent-capitalism, bossism, and machine politics. Although Kusaka’s study focused on Philippine context, his theoretical proposition and empirical findings have implications in rethinking the tenets of liberal democracy which promise economic development but brought underdevelopment and inequalities to the world. The middle class were thought to lead the masses to empowerment and enlightenment, but instead connived with and joined the ranks of the elite to defend and advance their interests, and abandoned the masses to take care of their own welfare.

One weakness of this book is its inability to link and relate the dynamics of social movements to Philippine political culture. Indeed, the antagonistic “we–they” relations between public spheres (mass and civic) are defined by and contingent on the country’s colonial history whose national culture has been shaped by a series of colonial rule—Spanish, American, and Japanese foreign powers for less than 400 years. The hybrid cultures formed through colonialism have greatly influenced how the country is presently governed, how the elite and masses interact with the institutions of governance as well as extra-institutional political processes, and how social movements associate with the state based on their respective ideology and political persuasions. Similarly, such cultures are bifurcated between what is sensed as “good” and “evil,” or “right” or “wrong.”

For instance, corruption in government is an historic malfeasance committed by current political leaders and bureaucrats whose behavior has been shaped by the culture of state corporatism from previous colonial masters; a frame of mind which considers the state and bureaucracy as personal instrumentalities, institutionally incorporating them into the ruling mechanism to enrich themselves. The indifference of the elite and current governors over the welfare and plight of the people is a carryover of the colonial government’s apathetic attitude that regards colonized people as feudal subjects who ought to serve the needs and demands of the former. The system of election, bequeathed by the Americans, remains to be a routine and ceremonial political exercise with minimal national and local significance. Election results are oftentimes rigged and seldom reflect people’s sovereign rule over their leaders. They are customarily viewed as a period of legally, rather than legitimately, maintaining power or transferring the power to rule from one elite class to another. For the masses, elections are payback times—to retrieve monetary and material benefits from affluent candidates. This is a way of redistributing wealth, i.e., from the “rich” to the “poor.” These political cultures and traditional behaviors, to name a few, continue to be manifested in contemporary Philippine politics.

The Philippine hybrid political cultures, correlated with long-standing concepts and fundamental values of people, have fashioned both the elite and mass political orientations as well as the leaders and citizens political behaviors. It is characterized by a critical and contemptuous view of present-day political practices but likewise shaded by a strong faith that reform can ultimately resolve the existing socio-economic and political reality. Thus, cynicism is balanced by the expectation that reforms are worth seeking. The same dynamics are at work in the Philippines (Grossholtz 1964). Although no culture is static and all are subject to change, there are dynamic processes operating within and outside of the national socio-economic and political system that either encourage or discourage the acceptance of new ideas which can contribute to the transformation or perpetuation of the national culture. It is likely, however, that social, political, and psychological chaos would result if there were conservative forces strong enough to resist change. In the case of the Philippines, the progressive forces have not gained substantial strength to transmute the country’s political culture.

Kusaka could have tied political culture with his concept of moral politics to strengthen his argument on the deficiency of democracy and continuing inequality not only in the Philippines, but also in the world. Integrating the question of political culture into his framework would definitely show the bigger picture in the quest of comprehending moral politics. However, taken as a whole, Moral Politics in the Philippines is a worthy contribution to the wealth of knowledge in a range of disciplines—political science, psychology, and sociology. His work is highly relevant in rethinking the changing configurations in the developing world.

Rizal G. Buendia
Independent Consultant and Researcher, Southeast Asian Politics and Governance, Wales, UK


Grossholtz, Jean. 1964. Politics in the Philippines: A Country Study. Boston: Little, Brown.


Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Chi P. PHAM


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina
Gerard Sasges
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017.

Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina traces political, economic, and scientific forces involved in the emergence of the alcohol regime in Indochina, its long lasting until the end of the colonial period, and its indelible mark on Indochinese economy, society, politics, and culture.

Each chapter examines dynamic projects run by individuals, organizations, and communities—in colonial Indochina, French metropole, and across the globe—that engaged in the formation of the alcohol regime as the central institution of Indochina’s colonial period. Specifically, Chapter 1 “Inheritances” examines how the state’s alcohol policies originated from the codependent relationship between the French administration and enterprises, particularly tax farms in Indochina that were dominated by powerful Chinese syndicates. Chapter 2 “A Scientific Monopoly” tells stories indicative of role of Albert Calmette—a scientist in microbiology in charge of establishing Indochina’s first vaccine production facility and promoting the growth of French-owned industry—in the creation of Indochina’s alcohol regime. Chapter 3 “Fiscal Logics” recounts events that reveal how Frenchmen (including Paul Doumer, A. R. Fontaine, and Antonin Frézouls in the position of Governor-General) attempted to create, consolidate, and normalize monopolies of alcohol production and sales across Indochina as the basis of a fiscal system that enabled the realization of new, interventionist state policies. Chapter 4 “The Limits of Sovereignty” explores distinctive geographical, historical, and ethnic characters of Indochina as factors that constrained the French administrators’ vision of excising alcohol production across the entire territory of Indochina, and the associated idea of Indochina as being controlled by a rationalized centralized bureaucratic state. Chapter 5 “The Great Service” discusses how the Department of Customs and Monopolies attempted to administrate and enforce the monopoly of factories of the Distilleries of Indochina Corporation run by the colonial state over the “native alcohol”; the chapter also looks at cooperation of ordinary Indochinese, such as Vietnamese, Khmer, and Lao, in the operation of the Department. Chapter 6 “Oppression, Resistance, Rebellion” examines negotiation and suppression of the state over its subjects in response to the reality that the alcohol regime was hindered by the Indochina’s people “everyday resistance” and “overt resistance.” Chapter 7 “The Political Economy of Alcohol” discusses August Raphael Fontaine, the founder and managing founder of the factories of the Distilleries of Indochina Corporation, who possessed great capital, global linkages, new technologies, and state access, and established alcohol monopoly in Indochina. Chapter 8 “Evolutions” investigates the ways in which the alcohol regime was shaped by the two interrelated elements of contemporary Indochina’s evolving public sphere: consultative institutions and print media.

Emphasizing multiple contexts, Imperial Intoxication departs from the common belief that the formation of the alcohol regime in Indochina must have been shaped by the colonial rule as the result of colonial modernization. In this volume, the alcohol regime in Indochina here is, instead, treated as part of economic, scientific, political, economic processes, and cultural forces spreading—unevenly while inevitable—throughout diverse, incoherent Indochina and across the globe. By placing the alcohol empire in “as many context as possible,” the author argues persuasively that the formation of Indochina’s alcohol regime was a historically avoidable event in the context of ineluctable dynamic connections of French-ruled Indochina with global-crossed changing forces. Accordingly, the alcohol regime in Indochina was formed and maintained by the convergence of several local and global elements, including: fiscal demands of state-building (Chapter 3) and the need for a civilian police system as part of colonial rule (Chapter 3); advancements in microbiology and the French armaments industry (Chapters 2 and 7); commercial interests and cooperation of local Chinese, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Lao populations; and the geographical cultural, and historically diversity of Indochina. The author particularly stresses the ways in which Indochina’s alcohol regime was derived from engagements between people and governments, and the introduction of new industrial, governmental, financial, and scientific technologies at the turn of the twentieth century. Accordingly, the Indochinese alcohol regime is presented as fitting within a global history of state monopolies on alcohol production: the book places the history of the Indochina’s monopolistic state alcohol regime in connection with that of other alcohol monopolies across countries in Europe and Asia, such as Russia, Switzerland, Japan, and Taiwan. In doing so, Imperial Intoxication offers a perfect answer to the “inexplicable” historical context from which the alcohol regime was maintained for decades regardless of its enormous political loss and financially unproductive contribution. That is, the appearance and long continuation of the alcohol regime was determined not only by the colonial rule; it was also an integral part and avoidable process of the larger global alcohol regime in particular, and the economic, scientific, political bodies and processes across the global in general.

In summary, Imperial Intoxication explicitly encourages readers to look beyond national and imperial boundaries and away from normalized distinctions between metropole and colony in regard to the alcohol regime in Indochina. Nevertheless, this volume offers excellent examination of politically, culturally, and economically dynamic and complex conditions of Indochina under French colonial administration. In other words, the alcohol regime can be understood a case study through which the author discusses traditional subjects and dominant arguments in studies of colonial Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. As explicitly stated in the book, the alcohol regime provides “a unique window on the modalities and experiences of French rule in Indochina” (p. 9). For example, analyses of the alcohol as a moment in the growth of Vietnamese media and the development of Indochina’s intellectual debates, invite readers to reconsider dichotomies of revolution and reform in favor of the tradition of “colonial republicanism” that Peter Zinoman scrutinized in his book Vietnamese Colonial Republican: The Political Vision of Vu Trong Phung (2013). Explorations of complex relations to the state alcohol agents with local ethnic minorities and villagers regarding alcohol production and sales indicate what Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery in their Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858–1954 (2009) called “ambiguous colonization,” in which the French administration is both hegemonic and fragile, and colonial institutes reflected and performed aspirations and interests of the French and of local ordinary and powerful people. The struggles to maintain the monopolistic status of the state alcohol are examined in relation to: local people’s shared experiences of colonialism (Chapters 7 and 8); complex and overlapping ways identities were articulated and shaped in colonial Indochina (Chapters 2, 4, and 5); and individuals and institutions involved in the emergence of anti-colonial nationalist movements in Indochina (Chapters 6 and 7). Impressively, treating alcohol production and consummation in Indochina as an institution in the colonial rule and as a moment in political processes in that region suggests a historical explanation for sentiments about alcohol pervading national Vietnamese literature, where alcohol is a symbol of both the exploitative and the brutal reality of French rule and cultural identity—a means in national struggles to end the colonial rule.

Chi P. Pham
Institute of Literature, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences


Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Arunima DATTA


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Cultural Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Asia
Tiantian Zheng, ed.
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016.

Cultural Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Asia is a provocative and timely publication which invites us to re-vision our understanding of sexuality, gender roles, and gender relations as performed, experienced, and perceived in Asia. The book brings together cultural, social, and economic contexts of Asia to show how gender and sexuality are not a “given” and cannot be understood or analyzed without understanding the contexts they are found in. Toward this end, the chapters put forward a detailed analysis of how individuals engage with, negotiate, contest, resist and at times even transform configurations of gender and sexuality in various contexts. Readers can expect to take away two critical arguments from this volume: first, tradition is a perennially transient concept; second, the experience of gender and sexuality in the private or public space is never purely private or public.

The chapters focus on different spatial contexts, ranging from larger urban spaces and corporate spaces, to more specific niches like nightclubs and domestic spaces. In the process, the book also investigates the various aspects of gender relations through a myriad of intimacies: transactional intimacies, romantic intimacies, and homosocial intimacies. Also, this volume’s contributions offer different lenses to investigate various forms of intersectionality of various factors which influence gender and sexuality ideas and experience in any given context. Two key elements of intersectionality explored by almost all chapters involve the influence of transnational mobility, and the influence of global economy on perceptions about sexuality and gender relations in Asia.

Chapters by Nana Okura Gagné, and Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo and Tracy Royce examine how men and women “voice” or perform their agency in transactional relations and spaces like clubs to negotiate, contest, resist and at times deconstruct mainstream views of gender roles and masculinities and femininities. Other chapters like the ones by Heidi Hoefinger, Tiantian Zheng, Xia Zhang reveal how men and women engage and transform ideas about migration, gendered work, and intimacy. These chapters help re-vision simplistic understandings of migration trends by illuminating the importance of intersections of various factors, which influence the way men and women engage with ideas of labor, intimacy, class, and migration. Essays by Ahmed Afzal, Madhura Lohokare, John Osburg, and Kevin Carrico, venture into the ideological battlefields of gender and sexuality, wherein ideas about “moral masculinities,” traditionalist views about gender roles, privileges (particularly leisure), and spaces are evoked. In their essays, they raise interesting arguments and insights about how certain individuals, who do not necessarily “fit” into the “traditional” and normative assumptions of gender and sexuality, engage with or reject such ideological constructs.

While each chapter focuses on different subjects, contexts, and spaces, they remain connected in their efforts to explore how individuals meet or negotiate social expectations for assumed gender roles and sexualities in their everyday lives. Simultaneously, all essays make readers aware of the crucial importance of local contexts, which intimately intersect with regional and global contexts, to influence the individuals’ gender and sexuality experiences, roles, and opportunities. Above all, the volume brings to surface the everyday experiences of individuals with gender and sexuality within politically, culturally, and socio-economically transient spaces of Asia.

Despite the above-mentioned merits, however, this volume has a few fundamental shortcomings. While its title Cultural Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Asia might imply that it covers all regions of Asia, its contents are actually overwhelmingly East Asia-centric and focus heavily on China. Out of the 12 essays, there are only 2 essays covering South Asia, 2 on Southeast Asia, and none on West Asia and Central Asia. Even while engaging with East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, it focuses on the “centers” of the respective regions and leaves out other equally relevant nations, like Korea, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and others which could contribute to a more inclusive and comparative knowledge about gender and sexuality in Asia. This could have been achieved if there had been a more democratic selection of essays on Asian societies. To an informed reader, this will seem problematic, and arguably the first question that may come to mind is how the editor perceives Asia: does Zheng see China as the focal point of Asia? It is understandable that it is challenging to devote equal attention to all regions in such an edited volume. However, the volume could have instead chosen to focus on East Asia or China, and be titled Cultural Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary East Asia/China. A book like that would have also given the “space” for some valuable essays on China, and engaged the reader in various exciting contexts and ideas which were raised in this present volume but not adequately fleshed out.

Further, as is the case with any edited volume, certain chapters contain better arguments than others. While all essays do well to engage with issues of gender and sexuality ethnographically, I found the discussions concerning “neoliberalism,” “sexual field,” “modernity,” “whiteness,” and “morality” rather puzzling. The contributors of these chapters should instead have engaged more critically and analytically with these concepts within the contexts of their respective studies. Nonetheless, this book also includes more nuanced chapters which successfully tease out various textures hidden in concepts of “agency,” homosocial relations, spatial identities, and masculinity-femininity stereotypes.

These issues aside, Cultural Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Asia as a whole is informative and can be useful for teaching gender and sexuality classes, particularly those focused on contemporary China. Particular chapters on South and Southeast Asia can also be extracted to supplement texts in undergraduate-level courses.

Arunima Datta
San Jose Evergreen Valley College, California


Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Brandon Kirk WILLIAMS


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Southeast Asia’s Cold War: An Interpretive History
Ang Cheng Guan
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2018.

Southeast Asia’s Cold War makes a significant contribution to understanding the Cold War’s long history in Southeast Asia. Its author, Ang Cheng Guan, takes on a mammoth task: writing a capacious political and diplomatic history of Southeast Asia beginning in the turbulent period after 1919 until the Cold War’s conclusion in 1991. He largely accomplishes this task in a snappy 198 pages by blending recent secondary literature, memoirs, and primary sources. Spatially, the book strikes a fair balance between maritime and mainland Southeast Asia while incorporating the perspectives of China, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Ang also aptly weaves in the ascendance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to articulate how regional leaders anticipated a new, post-Vietnam War political landscape. Cogently writing this history is no mean feat, and there is much to celebrate in this ambitious book.

The volume harkens back to an older era of scholarship in diplomatic history. Ang declares in his introduction that he is moving away from the preoccupations that dominated the literature during the cultural turn of the past few decades. By foregrounding politics and diplomacy, he sets the terms for an argument that ties decolonization and nation-building with the Cold War in order to outline the creation of Southeast Asia as a political space during much of the twentieth century. He deserves praise for his reasoned stance that the literature needs an overview that traces the region’s diverse local and international diplomatic inputs while simultaneously integrating regional voices that are often neglected.

One of the book’s signal contributions is the selection of an interpretive lens that contends with Southeast Asia “from within rather than without” (p. 194). This perspective is sorely missing, and Ang is to be commended for placing readers in the region and not solely in the halls of great powers. He adeptly steers away from the historical literature that privileges the experience of the United States. Readers should not expect to see the names of historians of American foreign relations who predominantly discuss the Vietnam War. The author does not cite myriad works by Marilyn Young, Fredrik Logevall, Mark Lawrence, or Mark Philip Bradley. Utilizing the vast scholarly output of American foreign relations historians would be easy, and it is doubtful that this is an accidental strategy. As a result, readers benefit from Ang’s choice to employ scholarship that grapples with the region on its own terms.

How does an author craft an almost century-long diplomatic history of the region? Historians and scholars of Southeast Asia have thus far eschewed writing broad syntheses of the region’s past during this time period due to somewhat obvious challenges of complexity. As Ang states in the introduction, he adopts a narrative style to chart the trends and continuities that defined the Cold War’s diplomatic life in the region. Impressively, the book stays on track throughout its 198 pages and Ang seldom deviates from explaining diplomatic maneuvering. The narrative remains focused without detours into the Cold War’s disparate theaters or capitals. The cast of characters is inclusive without spiraling into an unwieldy mass of names and acronyms. An audience of experts and non-experts will find this book valuable in comprehending the region’s diplomatic history. The prose in Southeast Asia’s Cold War is not freighted with scholarly jargon, and the book will serve as an invaluable reference tool for a variety of readers searching for an understanding of how regional leaders met the challenges created by decolonization and the Cold War.

The author restores a great deal of agency to communists and the left, those he indicates are often forgotten as the losers in the Cold War history literature. Communist cells in Southeast Asia long predated the hardening of the geopolitical order in the 1940s. Ang demonstrates to readers in Chapter One, “Antecedents,” the genesis of communist parties in Southeast Asia as anticolonial movements with Moscow’s backing. China’s support of communist parties after 1950 eventually trumped the Soviet Union’s, situating the struggle against communism via Beijing rather than Moscow. In a similar vein, the volume asks that readers take seriously the anticommunism of leaders such as Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Ne Win, Lee Kuan Yew, and Thailand’s ruling elite.

Uniquely, Southeast Asia’s Cold War tackles the region’s evolution and communism’s decline in maritime Southeast Asia that birthed ASEAN. Ang views the first half of the 1960s as a turning point that parallels the Vietnam War in establishing the patterns that dominated the region after 1975. In Chapter Four—the book’s longest and titled “Antagonisms”—the author demonstrates how leaders in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia extinguished communism’s threat to their rule. They accomplished this despite Mao’s and North Vietnam’s active sponsorship of violent national liberation struggles in neighboring Southeast Asian states. Assistance from the United States, Britain, and Australia facilitated this process, yet, as Ang shows, the impetus originated in maritime Southeast Asia. A sense of solidarity emerged among these states that inspired ASEAN’s creation in 1967, without the West’s heavy hand in forming the organization. ASEAN shifted from aspirational to operational only in the mid-1970s to counter the end of the Vietnam War and a decline of the United States’ regional footprint. “The fall of Saigon jolted them to action,” Ang writes, and ASEAN assumed a new role as a collective voice (p. 158).

Refreshingly, the author’s discussion of the massacre of Indonesian communists in 1965 and 1966 places this event in the stream of communist activities in maritime Southeast Asia. His tone is measured and the analysis is, mostly, correct. He accurately retells the decline of civil order under Sukarno’s failed Guided Democracy that precipitated a rising tenor of political competition that erupted in searing levels of violence. Economically, Indonesia teetered on the brink of collapse and Sukarno’s health failed. These events perhaps inspired a small cadre of the Indonesian Communist Party’s (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) leadership to collude with military officers to seize power. Mao encouraged PKI leader D. N. Aidit to prepare for a violent struggle with the army, whenever it arose. A putsch on the night of September 29, 1965, failed and portended devastating consequences. The author emphasizes the importance of a list of approximately 5,000 communists provided by the United States Embassy in Jakarta to the Indonesian military. Historian Jess Melvin’s 2018 The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder sheds new light on this topic, and Melvin’s book is a necessary addition to any understanding of the massacres. As she ably illustrates, the army perpetrated the slaughter with startling efficiency thanks to advance preparation that was independent of American aid. One cannot criticize Ang for omitting a book that was published after his own, yet any future writings on this event must take The Army and the Indonesian Genocide into account.

The PKI’s failure did not mirror North Vietnam’s eventual triumph over South Vietnam and the United States. Ang allocates a suitable amount of the book’s pages to document the ways by which the struggle for Vietnamese unification and the United States’ combat operations pulled Southeast Asia into the conflict. Thailand, in particular, became a critical node for American military efforts, and various Thai ruling cliques implored the United States to preserve dedicated streams of material assistance to resist the war’s overflow. North Vietnamese military planning and diplomacy, often conducted by Le Duc Tho and Le Duan, prioritized expanding the struggle beyond Vietnam’s borders. However, the author does not offer a justification as to why both men “persuaded and encouraged” Malaysia’s Chin Peng to embark on a guerilla war to undermine Tunku Abdul Rahman’s leadership (p. 102). Were their actions the product of revolutionary zeal? Readers are never provided an answer.

Ang rightly attends to the arc of Vietnam’s history prior to and after the war. North Vietnam’s emissaries cultivated support from China and Russia. Their efforts only yielded Soviet support in the long run. When South Vietnam’s fall arrived in 1975, “nobody, not even the Vietnamese communists themselves, expected that they would be able to reunify the country so quickly” (p. 155). Shifting geopolitical tides left Vietnam stranded with only the Soviet Union as an ally. Vietnam and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1976, with the consequence that, for China, “the treaty was synonymous to having a Cuba next to China” (p. 177). The author excels in charting how Vietnam realigned its regional politics after 1975. Embarking on a failed invasion of Cambodia prompted China to attack Vietnam and created an opening for China to reconcile with ASEAN nations.

For Southeast Asia, the most difficult struggle throughout much of the Cold War was the looming presence and ultimate integration of China into regional affairs. Ang deftly traces China’s changing relationship with much of the region that progressed from enemy to wary partner to a constituent in Southeast Asia’s economy and diplomacy. The normalization of bilateral relations of Southeast Asian states with China was achieved slowly—if not glacially in the case of Indonesia. This process contributed to the Cold War’s erosion before the Berlin Wall’s climactic fall. To this reviewer’s eyes, he could have made a stronger argument that events in Southeast Asia signaled the end of the Cold War. A drastic change in the economic model in East Asia and Southeast Asia heralded a novel, globalized dawn that presaged much of the post-1989 world. Fleshing out this transformation could have brought readers more into the present to realize the contemporary purchase of Cold War-era diplomacy within Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia’s Cold War’s narrow focus prevents readers from grasping the dense layers of local, regional, and international politics that intersected to shape diplomacy. Interstate relations are never conducted in a vacuum. Indeed, decolonization and the postcolonial project was an intoxicating milieu of culture, modernization, economics, diplomacy, Afro–Asian solidarity, war, and vast human destruction. Ang mostly avoids tallying the human toll, and at times readers are left with a sense that the titanic amount of death did not register as an influential dimension in the region’s events. Notably absent was a fluid discussion of modernization and economics in Southeast Asia. The last few pages on economics in the final chapter, “Ending the Cold War Chasm,” appear more as an afterthought rather than an element knitted into the book’s analytical framework.

In spite of these critiques, the author has provided historians and area specialists with a laudable entry that scholars can expand upon and update. Southeast Asia’s Cold War stands alone in the literature and will be a necessary guide for those who seek to view the region’s politics from within. As geopolitics once more pivot toward influence over Southeast Asia, books such as this can help future scholars and policymakers see the contours of regional politics and the stakes for those who determine its future.

Brandon Kirk Williams
Department of History, University of California, Berkeley


Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Phill WILCOX


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia: How People, Money, and Ideas from China Are Changing a Region
Pál Nyíri and Danielle Tan, eds.
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016.

Rising Chinese influences in Southeast Asia is an increasingly relevant and controversial issue in Southeast Asia. In Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia, Pál Nyíri and Danielle Tan have assembled a timely and important selection of papers. Based on empirical research, these aim to address questions of China’s impact in the region both in tangible terms—people, money—and the more intangible changes that come from rising Chinese ideas and perceptions in Southeast Asia.

This is a hugely ambitious volume, and one that combines case studies from across Southeast Asia. All the contributions recognize the speed and scale of China’s rise and the many new ways in which China has entered the region. The volume starts with an informative foreword by Wang Gungwu, which sets up the discussion very well. Wang recognizes rightly that in 2018, notions of nations existing within clearly defined borders are increasingly problematic, a major theme of the contributions in the volume.

In their introduction, Nyíri and Tan state that they have attempted to provide a nuanced analysis of China’s engagements in Southeast Asia and argue for the importance of day-to-day interactions. This sets up a framework that takes ethnography seriously. The authors are right to do this and to recognize that much of the literature on China in the developing world misses out on the ambivalent everyday interactions at local levels, and that binary distinctions—such as center–periphery and dominant–subordinate—obscure as much as they include. Similarly, they acknowledge that while China may have general policies toward the developing world, there is no one model for Chinese influences in Southeast Asia, which accounts for China being experienced differently and with varying levels of ambiguity throughout the region.

Part One of the book considers shifting identities. All three chapters in this section detail how change is not only a process of newcomers changing destination countries, but also about those countries changing in response to rising Chinese influences and the visible presence of growing numbers of Chinese. All the contributions in Part One speak to changing ideas of existing notions of what being Chinese means and its increasing conflation with being somehow attached to the territory of China. Nyíri’s chapter on Chinese migration challenging the very meaning of Chinese in Cambodia and how prevailing norms are being reinterpreted in view of China’s rise is particularly effective. This is also illustrated well in Yeoh and Lin’s chapter, which questions the extent to which mobilities of Chinese are new and how these change the otherwise entrenched meanings including of migration itself. The section concludes with a chapter by Weng on Hui business and religious activities in Malaysia and Indonesia, and which includes some very insightful detail. However, I would have liked some further theorizing, which would have connected the ethnographic detail more closely with the overriding themes of the book. This chapter also contains some very insightful details on being Chinese and Muslim, and how these identities combine. Weng is entirely right to insist that these are not mutually exclusive.

Part Two looks at livelihoods. Somewhat sadly, this section has only two chapters. Both are very well-written, however, and it is notable that both chapters in the livelihoods section focus on border areas. Siriphon examines guanxi practices in Northern Thailand: by viewing the border as a transnational space, he considers the lived experiences of social relationships and how these are changemakers from the ground up. Siriphon’s conclusion that language now overshadows relationships of ethnicity is an interesting one and something that I would have liked to have seen developed further in the essay. However, his key observation about how new migrants view themselves as both Chinese citizens and persons belonging to the territory of China echoes similar arguments made in Part One. This is an important distinction in thinking about new waves of Chinese migration into Southeast Asia, and how they are different. Following this, Grillot and Zhang’s chapter on ambivalent encounters on the China–Vietnam border is an outstanding essay that considers the border space as a place that embodies attraction, exoticism, and adventure. Through a focus on sex workers, they argue that Vietnam is imagined and experienced through the bodies of these women. Grillot and Zhang argue that these women represent difference and provide a forum for encounters with an exotic other. Their argument that these women represent Vietnam as an ambivalent place to their Chinese customers is a very compelling one, and again connects well with overall themes of ambiguity in encounters between China and Southeast Asia.

Part Three comprises four chapters. This section is labeled “norms,” which seems a misnomer as the book is all about changing norms. Nevertheless, the four case studies once again cover a wide geographical area. Hau looks at the relationship between Philippine politics and Chinese commercial interests. She notes there are multiple implications to this, and connects new Chinese businesses with politics at both micro and macro levels. At times, this chapter seems to lack focus. However, it makes some good arguments about the importance of establishing very specific relationships within the Philippines, and how international tensions are reproduced directly in apparently domestic politics. In the following chapter, Danielle Tan argues in her title for “An alternative account of state formation in Laos” by considering Chinese activities in the Golden Triangle. This chapter is excellently written and has a very authoritative quality. Tan’s argument for aspects of state functions being outsourced to actors that the state rejects publicly as a reality in this area is well made. My only criticism of this argument is that I would have liked further consideration of local Lao voices. She states that Chinese investment and influences help to strengthen the Lao state in remote areas, yet this is not what her interlocutors appear to be saying in their statements that Lao territory is being surrendered to Chinese interests and agendas.

In the following chapter, entitled “China in Burma,” Woods presents very convincing arguments backed by strong theory and analysis. He argues strongly against the binary distinctions of dominant–subordinate and center–periphery outlined at the start of this review, and offers an excellent illustration of just why these distinctions are problematic. Like Tan, he argues convincingly for the state becoming embodied in people and in places that the state rejects publicly. He is entirely correct and his assertions that entire questions of China in Burma are as complex as they are multi-faceted. Finally in this section, Hensengerth provides a detailed overview of water governance and hydropower projects in the Mekong Basin. He argues that the rules of engagement for how companies, governments, hydropower bodies, and NGOs engage in hydropower are contested. This chapter is well written, and very accessible to a non-specialist. My only criticism of an otherwise useful and insightful chapter is that some of the references seem quite old. I would have liked to know if the situation has changed since some of this research took place.

The last section comprises two chapters. Herlijanto considers Indonesian responses to the rise of China. This chapter provides a fascinating overview into how perceptions of China in Indonesia have undergone radical change since the end of the Suharto regime. Herlijanto considers how the positive climate has developed and in what ways China is now seen as representing positive things in various ways. I would have liked to know whether any negative perceptions remain, or whether any new negative ideas have appeared. Finally, Lyttleton’s essay, which concludes the book, is an outstanding chapter that questions notions of modernity. On initial reading, this chapter appears somewhat abstract in its consideration of how notions of desire are relevant to questions of China and a perceived relationship between China and modernity. While many of the essays in this volume look rightly at what is happening in the region, this chapter is unique in its more philosophical standpoint of taking the question of why as a starting point. Lyttleton’s contribution attempts to unpick the rhetoric of what catchphrases, such as the Greater Mekong Sub Region’s “community, competition and connectedness” (p. 216), actually mean in lived experience. Lyttleton concludes that in a rapidly changing world, the questions of asking what the world is changing into, how and why, are more relevant than ever.

Overall, Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia is an excellent book and provides vital insights into growing Chinese influences in Southeast Asia. It fulfills the promising remit outlined in the introduction and foreword. It also demonstrates clearly that China’s rising profile is not experienced the same universally and shows that local agency and understandings remain important, perhaps increasingly and particularly in their demonstrations of how the rise of China is experienced ambivalently and is marked by ambiguity. For this reason, I have pluralized China’s influences throughout this review. All the contributors point to this being a mass movement of ideas, people, and money from China. However, while this often has similar characteristics, it takes very different forms. This volume is a timely and important contribution to the existing body of literature, which often views China’s rise in international terms that negate lived experiences. I highly recommend it as a valuable contribution in both area studies and across the social sciences.

Phill Wilcox
Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University


Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Nathan PORATH


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Seeing Beauty, Sensing Race in Transnational Indonesia
L. Ayu Saraswati
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013.

In some Southeast Asian countries, there is a trend that promotes an aesthetic appreciation for lighter or whiter skin tones. This ideology of “colorism” is the theme of Saraswati’s stimulating and sophisticated monograph, which explores how the white-skinned beauty ideal has been articulated and negotiated in Indonesia from pre-colonial times till present. The author frames her analysis within a historical transnational model of the Indonesian archipelago. She reveals how the archipelago drew and developed these notions from various sources of influence, first from India, then the Dutch Empire, followed by the Japanese occupation, the post-colonial nationalism and finally present-day cosmopolitanism. Her analysis of Indonesian whiteness ideology is also anchored in theories of affect and feminist cultural studies of emotion. In this innovative combination, Saraswati rather successfully brings to the foreground the manner in which “power” has subtly entered the domain of Indonesian women’s emotions through the constructed white-skin beauty aesthetic affecting their gendered sense of self.

Starting her presentation with an analysis of metaphors of beauty ideals in the Javanese text of the Ramayana (a transnational text originally composed in India and later adopted in a number of Southeast Asian societies), Saraswati shows that the white-skin aesthetic in Indonesia pre-dates the colonial racialized whiteness. She tries to, as she puts it, “gauge the colorism at work” in the text by analyzing the metaphorical color references for beauty. In this earlier Javanese period, the poetic reference to beautiful women were terms that suggested lightness, brightness and whiteness. These terms were also associated with cleanliness and purity. By contrast, negative and even frightening characters and situations were portrayed by metaphors of darkness and blackness. Saraswati argues that these hierarchic value-laden metaphors would have generated positive or negative feelings or sensations (rasa) in people as they listened to the tale which influenced emotional responses to people of different skin colors. For example, such metaphors would have inspired the feeling (rasa) of love towards the lighter-skinned subject and fear towards the darker-skinned subject.

According to Saraswati, when the colonials came to the archipelago (which she always calls Indonesia), and brought their own notions of whiteness with them, they arrived at a place where pale skin was already discursively valued and considered to be the beauty ideal. Her evidence for this comes from what she extrapolates from her analysis of the Ramayana. But Saraswati might also be reading too deeply about skin color in the poetics of the Ramayana. Although the Ramayana metaphors she discusses made references to white skin color during the pre-colonial period, it is possible that metaphors of brightness and radiance, and expressions like having a face radiating like “the whiteness of the moon” could also have referred to other qualities associated with whiteness but not necessarily referring to “white skin color.” It could be the case that in the pre-colonial period “whiteness” worked within a semiosis that made it a metaphor for some other positive quality. This quality could have described people regardless of skin tone, as possessing a countenance similar to the “shining whiteness of the moon.” At one point when she briefly narrates the story of the Ramayana, she mentions Hanuman the white monkey. She then adds in parenthesis that he embodies the color of white, further exposing the color symbolism in the Ramayana. However, Hanuman’s skin is white because he is an albino monkey with power; he is a magical oddity in the forest who comes to the aid of Rama. In Seeing Beauty, Saraswati does not discuss the role of albino whiteness in this semiosis of white skin tones—in her study of whiteness, she should also have explored the fact that Indonesians with albino appearance can somewhat resemble blonde Europeans and that people of the archipelago called (and still do call) Western people by the same name for albino (bule).

Later on in the book, Saraswati makes a very important remark in her discussion of modern cosmopolitanism. She states that whiteness is not a color but a non-color or a “virtual color”; hence, people of different skin tones could in any context be virtually white. Saraswati utilizes this idea for her discussion of cosmopolitan whiteness, but she could have developed it in her analysis of the Ramayana metaphors as the events of this epic tale are also set in a seemingly “virtual” realm. What she writes for the post-modern period may be equally applicable to the pre-colonial period.

From the pre-colonial Javanese period, the author fast-forwards to the Dutch colonial period of 1900–1942. The gap of a few hundred years is unfortunate as we are then left in the dark about the earlier period of Dutch and European presence. The earlier period of European presence would have brought non-racialized notions of white skin color to the archipelago, and although the information might be scanty it still could have been deciphered from the accounts of the early European visitors (particularly elites) of the people they encountered. Unfortunately, Saraswati’s cultural studies approach does not stretch that far, and in her account the historical gap is felt.

During the period of Dutch colonialism that Saraswati does focus on, Europeans were already conflating the notion of white skin color with the concept of “race” and racial superiority. Asian whiteness was reclassified as yellow and was not allowed into the white-skin-tone category. For her evidence, she analyzes a number of popular magazines that were circulating in the Indies at the time. In these magazines, the images of Caucasian women were presented as symbolizing the epitome of human beauty. Caucasian women were also presented as embodying civilized refinement through the appearance of emotional restraint.

The European racialized concept of whiteness was challenged during the short period of Japanese occupation. The Japanese defined themselves as also being people of white skin color. In turn, they created the space for an Asian whiteness. But as Saraswati points out, this shift from whiteness as race to whiteness as a skin tone only rarefied whiteness as a beauty ideal that now could be equally shared between nations. Hence, in modern Indonesia (as elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia), “white” means light or pale skin and has no racial connotation. It instead works within a hierarchy of skin colorism which can be understood through Indonesian interpretations of human skin whiteness.

Saraswati argues that over the years there has been a shift in national notions of whiteness to what she calls “cosmopolitan whiteness” in Indonesia’s beauty ideals—a term she borrowed from the women’s magazine Cosmopolitan. From her analyses of 18 issues of the Indonesian edition of the magazine, she argues that cosmopolitan whiteness is about appearing white rather than being white-skinned. Within the cosmopolitan space, anybody can be white regardless of skin color if they subscribe to a certain modern lifestyle and attitude. Further, whitening creams can make people appear white or what she calls “virtually white.” The author’s point is that “whiteness” mutates and coopts new forms of “whiteness” to maintain its supremacy, and one implicit aim of her argument is to reveal how this beauty aesthetic works as a symbol of power with negative affect.

To help her with her theoretical analysis, Saraswati introduces some novel terms. “Emotionscape” refers to globally circulating affective scripts, narrative, images, people, and ideas that crystalize locally for people into a landscape of dominant feelings about certain places and things. Another term she introduces is “gendered management affect” to refer to how people manage their feelings along gendered lines. To show how “whiteness” as a transnationally circulating beauty ideology overpowers the psyche of women in Indonesia, the author provides data from interviews with 46 Indonesian women who committed themselves to skin-whitening regimes. From these interviews, she noticed that all these women spoke about themselves in terms of being ashamed (malu) of their darker skin tone. Shame forces women to conform to the beauty ideology that is affecting their own self-image, she claims, and instead of challenging the power structure of transnational white colorism, women displace their negative feelings of shame onto their own skin. In that sense, women undergo skin-whitening procedures as a way to manage their malu feelings.

Finally, Saraswati does point out that not all Asian white skin colors are appreciated in Indonesia. Whereas there is an aesthetic preference for Japanese whiteness, Chinese whiteness is rejected. It is unfortunate, though, that the author does not tell readers more about Indonesian women’s rejection of Chinese whiteness. Neither does the author mention anything about how Indonesian Chinese women are affected by the rejection of their whiteness in the national skin color ideology of whiteness. What is also not discussed is the confidence that women with lighter and whiter skin complexion receive from the same beauty ideology and how they transnationally identify or not with white-skin-toned Asians from other countries. One final and unfortunate drawback of Seeing Beauty is the absence of any illustrations of the advertisements the author analyzes.

Over all, notwithstanding some of these critical points, Saraswati’s monograph of whiteness is clearly written and a pleasure to read. It should inspire more comparative research on the color ideology existent in other countries of the region.

Nathan Porath
Center for Ethnic Studies and Development, Chiang Mai University




Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace
Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng
Singapore: Ridge Books, an imprint of NUS Press, 2017.

This book contains the best overall summary of ASEAN that this reviewer has seen in 40 years, and is great for related introductory or graduate courses. This reviewer has used it for the latter purpose and originally had reservations about the repeated claim that ASEAN deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. However, after reading the entire volume, he came to agree that the Association is as successful as Kishore Mahbubani claims it is.

The ASEAN Miracle argues convincingly that despite its many imperfections ASEAN is the world’s second-most successful regional organization, after the European Union. Not only has it been able to preserve peace in Southeast Asia, it also provides an effective forum in East Asia for regional powers to meet and solve problems.

Four great cultural waves—from India, China, Islam, and the West—have had their historical impacts on Southeast Asia. However, the book’s authors remind us that Southeast Asians were already engaged in international long-distance trade 500 years before these waves (p. 16), and attribute what they call the “softness” of Southeast Asian cultures to the original Indian wave. The major exception is Vietnam—under direct Chinese imperial control for over a thousand years, it is the only ASEAN member with an uncharacteristic “hard” culture.

Indian, Chinese and Islamic cultures became mixed in with Southeast Asian history, myth, and beliefs, of both the aristocracy and the peasantry. Although a “civilizing” influence is often associated with the Western wave, the Europeans were interested only in profit, and they routinely used violence to gain it. Therefore, for over 300 years, the Western influence on local culture was limited to the Christianized Philippines. Western colonial borders were surprisingly permanent, even preserving a few small nations, such as Cambodia.

From this early history, we understand why the authors consider the success of ASEAN a miracle—such extreme global diversity is an unlikely source for a successful regional association. “The reason ASEAN has emerged as the indispensable platform for great power engagement in the Asia-Pacific region is that it is too weak to be a threat to anyone. So all the great powers instinctively trust it” (p. 3).

Mahbubani and Sng rightfully emphasize the leading role of Indonesia in the formation of ASEAN in 1967, especially in the way that President Suharto did not try to dominate the Association although Indonesia accounts for almost half the population and territory. But it seems to this reviewer that there is a deeper debt owed to Indonesia by ASEAN. The original miracle was the unification of the fourth-largest nation in the world out of the Netherlands East Indies. Consultation and consensus, the identifying trademarks of both Indonesia and ASEAN, were present from the beginning under Indonesia’s inspiring first president, Sukarno. Indonesians do not overtly claim ASEAN is just a continuation of Indonesia, but the book’s promotional blurb written by SB Yudhoyono, 6th Indonesian President, does imply it. This alternative perspective does not accord with the view of the authors.

The authors further point out that in the recent dealings between ASEAN and the great powers, both America and China have lacked wisdom. “China was . . . unnecessarily assertive in the South China Sea [and] blocking the annual ASEAN Joint Communique in Phnom Penh in 2012 represented one of the lowest points of Chinese diplomacy” (p. 77). Similarly, the US’s recent efforts to enlist ASEAN nations against China have been unwise.

In both instances, the great powers need to consider if any of them would stand to benefit from the destruction of ASEAN. Many of them are in fact unaware that they would not, but their casual attitude about this question can lead to their disdain (and that of the Western media) toward ASEAN.

The ASEAN Miracle is, above all, a tale from a diplomatic perspective, filled with incidents and quotations illustrating various historic ASEAN events. There are occasional tinges of elitism in these revelations of the diplomatic insider’s world, but it is all for the benefit of the reader.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US felt it no longer needed allies in Southeast Asia, and this was dramatically demonstrated in 1997’s Asian Financial Crisis. Thailand only received limited American aid (p. 90), in contrast to how quickly the US bailed out American and South Korean financial institutions affected by the Crisis.

Then, with the major terrorist attacks of 2001, America turned back to Southeast Asia, recruiting the moderate Muslim nations as allies in its war on terrorism. ASEAN once again supported the US despite its previous diplomatic snubs.

The authors are correct to lament Obama’s “failure to capitalize on his special relationship with Indonesia” (p. 94) since the then-President had spent his early years there. However, there are extremist American ultra-nationalists who believe Obama was not born in the US and is therefore not a US citizen, and they argued that this gave him no right to use these potential connections with Islam.

But notwithstanding America’s sometimes negative attitude towards Southeast Asia, the US is still perceived positively in ASEAN. This can be seen in the numbers of young Southeast Asians enrolled at American universities, a 47% increase over 10 years (p. 96). Moreover, many Western universities have been “crucial drivers” (p. 97) in the replication of the entire ecosystem of modern research universities in Asia. On this point, America has yet to realize how such transformation supports its diplomatic goals.

The authors believe that America’s inconsistencies toward ASEAN have caused the latter to accept China’s generous offers to increase trade, and even becoming their dominant trading partner. With the South China Sea disputes damaging China’s claim to have “peacefully risen” to its current global prominence, ASEAN’s partnership is a “geopolitical gift to China” (p. 102).

Vietnam, however, is the ASEAN member most wary of China, and this has to do with its complex dealings with the latter: “Every Vietnamese leader . . . must be able to [both] stand up to China and get along with China and if anyone thinks this cannot be done at the same time, he does not deserve to be a leader” (p. 109).

As for the EU, even though it is the world’s most successful regional organization, the authors note the greater unity comes from its common base of Greco-Roman culture and Christianity. Additionally, the EU has no common language and depends upon an overly-rigid legalistic framework for membership. This internal focus leads to a neglect of external issues, even those which threaten it directly. Examples include its non-involvement in North Africa and the Near East, which has resulted in the current flood of refugees from these areas (p. 113).

However, Mahbubani and Sng believe ASEAN can make the following recommendations to the EU. First, the EU could establish a scholarship program for young African Muslims to study in universities in Malaysia and Indonesia—through this program, students may see that Islam is quite compatible with democracy and development. Second, Europe should embrace policies of engagement instead of isolation—compare how the EU treated world power Russia in the Ukraine (p. 117), against how China was the first to sign a free trade agreement with ASEAN. “This is why the EU should learn lessons from ASEAN on geopolitics” (p. 118).

Next, in terms of communication, the EU could follow ASEAN’s example and also learn from ASEAN by using English, which is not the native language of any member, but is the language of world business. Finally, the EU could learn some flexibility by looking at the “ASEAN minus X” principle. When ASEAN added new members with lower levels of economic development, its agreements applied to all members, but with later dates for newer members. Such an approach would reduce the EU’s rigidity which the authors see as its main flaw as a model for regional associations. The authors would seem to be obsessed with the prospect of an ASEAN Nobel Peace Prize because the EU was given one in 2012 (p. 209).

The book also touches on India and Japan in the context of ASEAN. India—despite its deep cultural roots in Southeast Asia—leans more toward the anti-capitalist view common in the UN, while ASEAN leans closer to the US. India ranked only seventh in total trade and Foreign Direct Investment in ASEAN in 2013 (pp. 122–123), though rising Sino–US conflicts in ASEAN will, in this reviewer’s opinion, create opportunities for India. Japan is another great power which has not lived up to its potential in ASEAN. As the first Asian nation to industrialize, it appears that Japan also adopted a Western attitude toward its Asian neighbors, and its failure to live up to its early promises also damaged its relations with ASEAN (p. 131). In 2005, when Japan made a bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the only ASEAN nation to support Japan was Singapore. “Japan has never treated ASEAN with great respect” (p. 129).

Chapter Four features insightful and analytic “pen sketches” of the 10 ASEAN nations—this chapter alone makes the entire volume worth buying and can be assigned in any teaching course on Southeast Asia. The authors’ general advice is to leave ASEAN members alone to work out their own internal political problems, as interference is simply too un-ASEAN. One exception to this general rule is Cambodia, where the authors come close to suggesting the Association might expel Cambodia for its sacrifice of ASEAN unity to please China (p. 143), a surprisingly un-ASEAN threat.

In a book full of ironies, Mahbubani and Sng point to ASEAN’s sense of community and identity as its first major strength. After all, this sense of community is limited to a lack of outright declarations of war between member nations, and the communal identity depends to a large extent on ASEAN leaders’ shared enjoyment of golf. However, evidence shows that communal identity among its member populations is growing. With upgrades to educational curricula and popular youth-oriented media programs, most schoolchildren today can name the ASEAN member nations. Recent rapid increases in discount flights and visa-less travel within ASEAN have also increased interaction and familiarity.

The adoption of the ASEAN Charter in 2007 has strongly increased the power of ASEAN institutions, and seeing these institutions at work will help citizens develop a greater sense of ownership of ASEAN (p. 182). However, ASEAN has a notoriously weak and underfunded secretariat, and the authors make a call for change and improvements in this area.

Overall, this reviewer believes that education about ASEAN and the ASEAN identity are stronger than the evidence provided by the authors from 2007 and 2013. Though they are correct that these are still limited today, increasing knowledge among the ordinary citizens will ensure that ASEAN will most likely be around and stronger than ever by its centenary in 2067.

Jim Placzek
Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University
Center for Southeast Asian Research, Institute of Asian Research,
University of British Columbia


Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Darlene Machell de Leon ESPENA


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Performing Catholicism: Faith and Theater in a Philippine Province
Sir Anril Pineda Tiatco
Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 2016.

Exploring the intimate intertwining between the sacrosanct realm of Catholicism and the almost sacrilegious cultural practices-cum-performance spaces, Sir Anril Pineda Tiatco pushes readers to an uncomfortable corner where they get a full view of the active tension transpiring between faith and spectacle, between orthodox and unorthodox in the Philippines. He probes into the fantastic world of captivating, dramatic, and sensational Catholic devotional rituals, which include carrying of the cross, self-flagellation, and dancing and offers a way to look at the Catholic faith as a “spectacular and performed” religion (p. 5). As Tiatco explains in Performing Catholicism: Faith and Theater in a Philippine Province, some of these cultural practices, usually done during the Holy Week, have been discouraged, even opposed, by Catholic Church leaders time and again, and yet countless devotees continue to observe them (and representatives of the Catholic Church take part in them as well), hence contributing to their perpetuation as well as popularity. Throughout the book, Tiatco teases out the paradoxes and nebulousness of certain Catholic practices performed regularly by zealous observants under the auspices of the Catholic Church. The result is a compelling and lucid critical reading of Catholicism and its manifestations beyond the official dogmas and into the public-cultural sphere.

Focusing on three Catholic cultural spectacles in Pampanga—the libad (water ritual and festival), pamamaku king krus (nailing on the cross ritual), and kuraldal (dance ritual)—the author contends that there is no “homogenous and monolithic enactment” (p. 20) of the performances. Rather, the devotees engage in an unremitting process of negotiation and performance that renders their own imagination, contestation, and interpretation of the Catholic faith apparent albeit (especially as it is) deviating from orthodox Catholic doctrine. Drawing on theories from performative studies scholars such as Richard Schechner, Jon McKenzie, and Victor Turner, Tiatco scrutinizes these cultural practices against the analytical references of performativity, liminality, and efficacy. Citing Harvey Whitehouse, Tiatco maintains that despite the fact that Pampanga (like the rest of the Philippines) is majority Catholic, the actual process of Catholicization is not “simply the imposition of Western culture onto local tradition but, rather, highly variable processes of local interpretation and contestation” (p. 23). According to Tiatco, these Catholic cultural performances are both interpretations of and embodied resistance against the Catholic doctrine. On the one hand, the devotees themselves justify their devotion to the “very Catholic origins of the spectacles” (p. 113). In other words, they express their commitment to a divine being as well as their respect and obedience to the teachings of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, through these performances they are also “performing transgressions and resistances to the very doctrine where their cultural spectacles are rooted” (p. 113). That is to say, they also form their own narratives around the practices that defy official narratives.

The book is divided into four short chapters. In the first chapter the author lays down the rationale, theoretical foundations, and organization of the book. He makes it clear at the outset his positioning as an ethnographer who is also personally familiar with the Kapampangan Catholic cultural performances as he was born and raised there. Indeed, the book is as much an investigation of cultural practices in Pampanga as it is a personal account of the author’s reflections and examination of his own fascination with these cultural practices. Chapter 2 deconstructs a religious water ritual and festival in Apalit, Pampanga, called Apung Iru Libad as a site of continuous negotiation and contestation between the folk and the Catholic Church. The author surmises that these negotiations—marked by intermittent power struggles between the Catholic Church and the folk—are imperative not only for the continuance of the rituals but also for the performance of intimacy, which in turn fosters collective consciousness.

The third chapter extends the argument on the negotiating dynamics, elaborating on the ironies and ambivalences of the pamamaku king krus in Cutud, San Francisco. The author asserts that the “actors, the audience, the spaces of performance, and the texts” (p. 59) are all embodiments of the Catholic doctrines. He further suggests that these ambivalences allude to the myriad of interpretations of the Catholic tradition constructed by the people themselves. In the process, the Catholic doctrines in Pampanga remain ambiguous and, at some level, subversive even to the Vatican’s official narratives. The last chapter takes the reader to the interesting case of the Kuraldal festival in Sasmuan, Pampanga, where thousands of (usually) childless couples participate as an act of “panata” or devotion hoping for their prayers to be answered (particularly on conceiving). According to Tiatco, local Catholic communities are continuously constructing narratives about Apung Lucia, the patroness of the parish, based on several narratives: their own interpretation and negotiation between the orthodox dogma coming from the Catholic Church as well as the unorthodox narratives and stories from devotees themselves. In this process, the ritual undergoes a complex process of continuous traditionalization without causing the destruction of the communities’ local cultures that preceded the advent of Catholicism in the Philippines.

The book is a compelling read as it offers a nuanced understanding, which deviates from traditional and orthodox Catholic scripts, of the convoluted landscape of religious and cultural processes in the Philippines. In a skillful interweaving of his ethnographic observations, personal insights, and theoretical musings, Tiatco successfully unravels the agency of the people and their role in meaning-making and the production of context for Catholic rituals that simultaneously engage and interrogate the official narrative and message of the Catholic Church. Without a doubt, this book is a significant contribution to the fields of performative studies, Philippine studies, and religious-ethnography studies. It encourages us to look deeper and closer into the inner workings of cultural translations and performances that are occurring at the ground level and therefore attempt to better understand the ideological, cultural, and social underpinnings of certain cultural performances that are otherwise discounted (sometimes) as heretic, problematic, or crude interpretations of orthodox Catholic doctrines. The book persuades us to consider the myriad of interpretations that are being produced by those who participate in religious practices as performances (and, by extension, the audience—those who bear witness to the spectacles). It forces us to view religious practices (not just Catholic) not as stagnant or static phenomena resistant to change but as continually being reinvented by powerful authors who, in fact, reside outside the main authority of the institution of the Catholic Church and are oftentimes regarded as passive (or blind) followers or receptors of the Catholic faith.

Darlene Machell de Leon Espena
School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University


Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, KAMOLNICH Swasdiphanich


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3



The Palace Law of Ayutthaya and the Thammasat: Law and Kingship in Siam
Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, trans. and eds.
Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2016.

The Palace Law of Ayutthaya and the Thammasat is divided mainly into two parts: the Thammasat and the Palace Law of Ayutthaya. It seems to be a significant tool for foreign scholars focusing on Thai legal history, which, manifestly, is largely based on philosophy derived from the Thammasat and the Three Seals Code. The book gathers important details regarding the Thammasat and the Three Seals Code in a well-organized structure that not many Thai textbooks can contribute. For Thai scholars, or those with a deep understanding of the Thai language, however, this book might not be as interesting as expected since many Thai-language sources provide more comprehensive and detailed information. Nevertheless, those Thai-language academic pieces share the flaws of being scattered and unorganized. Readers can find small pieces of information about the Thammasat mentioned randomly in many Thai legal textbooks, but there is no volume that systematically gathers and organizes the Thammasat. This book, therefore, will definitely encourage more work in the field.

It is important to read the preface thoroughly for those who have no background in Thai history. The preface gives readers an introduction to the era of Ayutthaya and the status it enjoys in the Thai history timeline. Readers will not understand the role of the Three Seals Code if they have no clue about the Ayutthaya period. It also might not be easy for Ayutthaya experts who are unfamiliar with other periods in Thai history to follow the book as the Thammasat and the Three Seals Code span many, if not all, eras of Thai history, from Dvaravati to Rattanakosin (Bangkok), and the book does not provide such background. The book mentions the notion of the Thammasat being passed down to Siamese through Mon people, possibly since the time of Dvaravati (p. 27). Although the people of Dvaravati were Mons (Pelliot 1904), the majority of the population in the nearby kingdom of Lavo were also Mons (Boeles 1967), and Lavo existed around the same period as Dvaravati. There is no clear answer about which kingdom Siamese inherited the Thammasat from. As such, for the sake of understanding and further research, it is important for readers to possess fundamental knowledge about these ancient kingdoms that existed on the soil of the Chao Phraya River before Siam. Further, there is a debate in the book arguing that the Thammasat might have been passed down to Siam through Myanmar, not Mon (p. 17); therefore, it is also worth giving a brief explanation about an ancient Myanmar country, which is the Pagan kingdom (Hudson 2008).

There are some issues with citations in the book that modern Thai scholars may find problematic. In several places, the book cites renowned Thai scholars who contributed to the topic (e.g., Prince Dhani and Phraya Vinaisunthorn). It is, however, essential to keep in mind that some opinions were probably critically biased due to political reasons, especially since the focus of the book is kingship in Siam. During the reign of King Rama VI, there were certain groups of people opposed to absolute monarchy. It was, as a result, normal for them to publicly express biased opinions about kingship in Siam. Phraya Vinaisunthorn, for example, was a scholar who wrote several articles against the journalist Klone Tid Lor, whom almost everyone knew was actually King Rama VI. Phraya Vinaisunthorn’s opinion of kingship in Siam, thus, might be considered biased. Moreover, the book cites Khun Chang Khun Phaen, one of the most famous works of Thai traditional literature written during the reign of King Rama II of Rattanakosin, to compare with cultures and traditions of Siamese in Ayutthaya, such as the traditions and practices of the judicial system held in the royal palace of Ayutthaya. It is true, according to Khamhaikan Chao Krung Kao, or the “Testimony of the Inhabitants of the Old Capital,” that Khun Chang Khun Phaen was assumed to be based on a true story that took place in the Ayutthaya period and people passed on verbally. Yet, there was no written version of Khun Chang Khun Phaen until King Rama II’s initiative. Hence, details in the story about palace and court procedures that were beyond the understanding of ordinary people of Ayutthaya should not be academically claimed as the law of Ayutthaya. Such details composed by royal poets and King Rama II himself should, instead, be compared to practices in the early Rattanakosin era, considering the origin of the written version. The reliability of Khun Chang Khun Phaen as a historical source on Ayutthaya is weakened by the fact that, apart from it, there is no other evidence from Ayutthaya mentioning this story (Damrong Rajanubhab 1917). Furthermore, Khun Chang Khun Phaen makes some claims that severely contradict the Three Seals Code. For example, the execution of Nang Wanthong does not comply with Phra aiyakarn laksana phu mia, or the Law on Husband and Wife (p. 4) in the Three Seals Code. Consequently, the use of Khun Chang Khun Phaen as a supplement to the Three Seals Code is debatable.

As for the Palace Law, the book has created a masterpiece for future researchers by systematically gathering and categorizing a part of the Three Seals Code: the Palace Law. It neatly elaborates the timeline and design of the Grand Palace construction in a way that few Thai historical books do. The book reminds Thai scholars of how far behind they are in academic research on their own legal history. Scholars can easily organize their research process by using the structure of this book. Still, it is worth noting that during the reign of King Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn as he is referred to in the book, there was a significant legal reformation in order to mitigate the country’s risk of being colonized by Western powers. The Three Seals Code faced its doom for such reformation starting from the 1850s. In other words, Siam has not been governed by the Three Seals Code since then. The book should have noted this fact as the authors compare ceremonies appearing in the Palace Law with ceremonies conducted in the reign of King Chulalongkorn (p. 69). The book uses Phraratchaphithi sipsong duean (Royal ceremonies in 12 months), a literary composition of King Chulalongkorn, as a source. However, Phraratchaphithi sipsong duean was composed in 1888, decades after the first legal reformation launched by the King. As a result, the difference in royal ceremonies between Phraratchaphithi sipsong duean and the Palace Law probably has nothing to do with the Three Seals Code. Readers with no background might misunderstand that the contents of the Palace Law regarding royal ceremonies in the Three Seals Code were changed a great deal during the reign of King Chulalongkorn. In fact, Siam at that time no longer used the Three Seals Code for royal ceremonies. This is a flaw of the book: discussing the origin of the Three Seals Code and the Thammasat, along with their contents, but not mentioning their downfall. Some citations in the book may lead to misunderstandings in this regard.

The book also provides a translation of the Thammasat and the Palace Law. This is an extraordinary achievement and a great contribution to scholars interested in Thai legal history. Nonetheless, the translation has been done chapter by chapter, not line by line, which might cause a problem for those who want to cross-check the contents. Moreover, the Thai version of the text is not made available. It would be more helpful for researchers, both Thai and foreign, to understand the translated version if the book showed a comparison between the Pali and the English line by line. Providing a comparison with the Thai version would be useful as well.

All in all, as the book does not provide an appropriate introduction—especially necessary historical background of relevant kingdoms and some citations—for readers to fully understand the contents, readers need to possess a basic knowledge of Southeast Asia before beginning on this book. Besides, although the book is still a great research source for Thai legal history studies, due to the lack of an appropriate introduction (e.g., the historical backgrounds of kingdoms involved in passing down the Thammasat) and the lack of a comprehensive discussion about the Thammasat and the Palace Laws (e.g., how they were revoked and when), it is rather a collected legal translation, albeit a good one.

Kamolnich Swasdiphanich กมลณิช สวัสดิ์พาณิชย์
Legal Division, Fiscal Policy Office, Thailand Ministry of Finance
Bank Information Center, Washington DC
Sunwater Institute, Bethesda, Maryland


Boeles, J. J. 1967. A Note on the Ancient City Called Lavapura. Journal of the Siam Society 55(1): 113–114.

Damrong Rajanubhab กรมพระยาดำรงราชานุภาพ. 1917. Tumnan Sepha ตำนานเสภา [The legend of Sepha]. Khun Chang Khun Phaen ขุนช้างขุนแผน, December 16., accessed December 1, 2017.

Hudson, Bob. 2008. Restoration and Reconstruction of Monuments at Bagan (Pagan), Myanmar (Burma), 1995–2008. World Archaeology 40(4): 553–571.

Pelliot, Paul. 1904. Deux itinéraires de Chine en Inde à la fin du VIIIe siècle [Two routes from China to India at the end of the eighth century]. BEFEO 4: 321–348.

Phasook Indrawooth. 2004. The Archaeology of the Early Buddhist Kingdoms of Thailand. In Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History, edited by Ian Glover and Peter Bellwood, pp. 120–176. New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Ronnachai Tosompak รณชัย โตสมภาค. 2013. Pukam: Senthang su khwam pen moradok lok พุกาม: เส้นทางสู่ความเป็นมรดกโลก [Pagan: A part of world heritage]. Academic Focus October 2556., accessed December 1, 2017.

* This review expresses the scholarly perspectives of the reviewer only. This review does not represent the perspectives or position of the Thai Government.


Vol. 7, No. 3, KHOO Boo Teik


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Borne by Dissent, Tormented by Divides: The Opposition 60 Years after Merdeka*

Khoo Boo Teik**

* I wish to express my deep gratitude to the Institute of Developing Economies (IDE-JETRO) for project funding that permitted me to conduct the interviews listed at the end of this paper. Financial support from the JSPS KAKENHI (Grant No. 25101006) for further research
undertaken after I had joined The National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies is gratefully acknowledged.
** The National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, 7-22-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8677, Japan
e-mail: khoo-bt[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.3_471

Surveying a post-1998 political terrain in Malaysia marked by sociopolitical dissent of diverse origins and goals, this article addresses several related issues. What social transformation and tensions have produced such a situation? What has been the impact of the dissent on contemporary politics? What are its implications when neither the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front), nor the opposition up to 2017 could claim to have a convincing hold over the popular imagination? The analysis provided here shows that long-term socioeconomic transformation has produced sources of political conflict that go beyond the familiar ones of interethnic divisiveness. The most visible impact of the dissent was the opposition’s electoral gains on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia in 2008 and 2013. Those gains demonstrated the efficacy of a new template of dissent consisting of cooperation between opposition parties, their alliances with dissident civil society, and their non-ethnic mobilization of disaffected segments of the electorate. There were populist traits to the mass, multiethnic, cross-class, and mainly urban mobilization of dissent that favored fluid politics that was double-edged. On the one hand, as the views of a number of interviewees suggest, the politics could successfully accommodate a wide range of concerns and actors. On the other hand, the contingent, flexibly structured cooperation among parties was subject to internal or external stresses and strains. But, as the Conclusion suggests, new streams of dissent could emerge in unexpected ways, such as the suspected complicity of the regime’s leadership in scandals that led to splits within the ruling party. It remained to be seen whether the 14th general election, which had to be held by mid-2018, would supply a definitive resolution of the virtual stalemate between the regime and the opposition.

Keywords: Malaysian politics, general elections 2008 and 2013, Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Rakyat, sociopolitical dissent, Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir Mohamad, Najib Razak

As the Introduction and other essays in this volume have noted, many kinds of social divides and diverse forms of dissent arose throughout the 60 years that have passed since Merdeka. Stresses of decolonization, state formation, and nation building up to the 1960s—conveniently demarcated by Malaya’s independence in 1957, Malaysia’s formation in 1963, and Singapore’s separation in 1965—threw up ethnic and class divides and dissent that combined to produce the ethnic violence of May 13, 1969. The next two decades, notable for controversies over the New Economic Policy (NEP), saw economic transformation and social change that produced new divides and dissent that climaxed in the 1987–90 split of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party of the ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional, BN, National Front).1) A lull in dissent from 1991 to 1997, when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership seemed unassailable, hinted at a closing of divides. However, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s dismissal in September 1998 triggered the Reformasi (Reform) movement, which exposed a divide of unsuspected depth. The Reformasi wave seemed to have receded by the time of the general election of 2004, when Mahathir’s successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, led BN to a landslide victory. Yet, new streams of dissent emerged in 2007 that have challenged the regime to this day. The earlier episodes having been much analyzed, it is the post-September 1998 dissent that forms the subject of this paper.

This latest dissent was mobilized along with an opposition project to defeat BN. The opposition project, which began with Reformasi, had poor results for a decade before it achieved a breakthrough in 2008. A subsequent spurt gave the opposition its best electoral result in 2013, but it was still unable to win power. Thereafter, internal and external problems disunited the opposition. But just when the troubled opposition seemed headed for a new nadir, a fresh crisis of the regime divided UMNO itself.2) And since 2016, the political terrain has been marked by new social divides and ill-coordinated dissent that has even transformed Mahathir into a dissident.

Surveying a range of dissent diverse in origin and goals, this chapter addresses several related issues. What social transformation and tensions have produced such a situation? What has been the impact of the dissent on contemporary politics? What are its implications when neither the opposition nor the regime can claim a convincing hold over the popular imagination? The analysis provided here shows that long-term socioeconomic transformation of Malaysian society has produced sources of political conflict that go beyond the familiar ones of interethnic divisiveness. The most visible impact of the dissent was the opposition’s electoral gains on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia in 2008 and 2013. Those gains demonstrated the efficacy of a new template of dissent consisting of cooperation between opposition parties, their alliances with dissident civil society, and their non-ethnic mobilization of disaffected segments of the electorate. There were populist traits to the mass, multiethnic, cross-class, and mainly urban mobilization of dissent that favored fluid politics that was double-edged. On the one hand, as the views of interviewees suggest, the politics could successfully accommodate a wide range of concerns and actors. On the other hand, contingent, flexibly structured cooperation among parties was subject to internal or external stresses and strains. But, as the Conclusion suggests, new streams of dissent can be produced in unexpected ways, such as the suspected complicity of the regime’s leadership in scandals that led to splits within the ruling party. Finally, there is no imminent or “permanent” resolution to the dissident ferment that began in 1998, as indicated by the virtual stalemate between the regime and its opponents discussed in the Conclusion.

The first four sections of the paper use secondary literature and publicly available media information. The concluding section draws primarily on personal interviews that the author conducted with social activists and political dissidents in civil society and political parties. The author does not claim that his interviewees represent a full spectrum of dissent, but he hopes that his analysis clarifies the concerns and activities of dissidents and oppositionists in their competition with the regime.

Overview: The Impact of Dissent

Of the four general elections held in the past 18 years, three left BN with one or another kind of crisis despite retaining power. The first crisis arose at the November 1999 election when UMNO suffered many defeats in its Malay heartland (Maznah 2003). It lost its hegemonic grip on the Malay imaginary as a very large number of Malays began “thinking the unthinkable,” that is, a government without UMNO (Khoo 1999). The second crisis came at the 12th general election of March 2008 (GE12). The opposition parties—Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS, Pan Malaysian Islamic Party), and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party)—together won 49 percent of the popular vote at the parliamentary level. Yet, in a first-past-the-post system subjected to gerrymandering and malapportionment, the result only gave the combined opposition just over one-third of the seats in parliament, including 10 out of 11 parliamentary seats in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. At the level of state elections, the opposition won 5 out of 13 states. On the whole, the outcome was a historic achievement for the opposition, which finally proved that it was not a wild hope to fight BN for power. After the election the DAP, PAS, and PKR formed a coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR, People’s Pact). In the 13th general election of May 2013 (GE13) BN again triumphed, only to face yet another crisis (Johan 2015). For the contending coalitions, GE13 “could be seen as a failure” for both and an “electoral impasse” (ibid., 37, 59): PR only won a few more seats, but it secured 50.9 percent of the popular vote against BN’s 47.4 percent, while the loss of the popular vote was a severe blow to BN’s legitimacy.

There are already published analyses of those three general elections.3) Only a big picture needs to be given here for each of BN’s crises. In 1999, Malay revulsion at Mahathir’s persecution of Anwar Ibrahim sparked a Malay voters’ revolt against UMNO. In 2008, an electorate enthralled by Abdullah Badawi’s early promises of institutional reform was aggrieved when his administration failed to fulfill them. Five years later, anger over economic hardship, worsening corruption, and the regime’s repressive responses to nonviolent mass protests swelled voter disgruntlement with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s even less transparent mode of governance.

Two developments that caused BN’s crises altered the terms of contestation between the regime and the opposition. One was the opposition parties’ cohesion as PR institutionalized DAP-PAS-PKR cooperation, managed its internal disagreements, survived the regime’s repression,4) and defied prophecies of PR’s doom as a partnership of “ideologically incompatible” parties.5) The other was popular dissent that arose during the last third of Mahathir’s 22-year tenure (1981–2003), surged in the latter half of Abdullah’s government (2003–9), and intensified throughout Najib’s administration (since 2009). At first the dissent expressed diverse but disparate grievances and political demands. In the last quarter of 2007 three large rallies were held in Kuala Lumpur. On September 26 the Bar Council led a march of lawyers and social activists to protest “Lingam-gate,” a scandal of alleged fixes of high judicial appointment. On November 10 BERSIH (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) organized a mass rally to make four demands of the Electoral Commission: the use of indelible ink on polling day, the cleanup of electoral rolls prior to elections, the abolition of postal ballots, and fair access to the media for all candidates. Then the Hindu Rights Action Front (HINDRAF), an ad hoc coalition of ethnic Indian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), held a huge demonstration on November 25 against what it condemned as the socioeconomic marginalization of the Indian community (Govindasamy 2015). From those separate causes, dissident individuals, members of NGOs, and opposition figures built alliances to support a progression of BERSIH rallies—BERSIH 2.0 in 2011, BERSIH 3 in 2012, BERSIH 4 in 2015, and BERSIH 5 in 2016—that became the largest and most protracted post-Merdeka demonstrations ever mounted. In many instances, nonpartisan dissent blended with the opposition to create a common front, as was seen in the PR-sponsored Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat (Gathering of the people’s rising) of January 12, 2013 and the run-up to GE13. In other words, BN had to face dissent that deepened, spread, and changed at key junctures.

New Social Bases

Malaysia’s multiethnic and multireligious society has long been subjected to the politicization of ethnicity and religion. Earlier phases of postcolonial contestation were suffused with interethnic recrimination, but as this section shows, new sources of conflict with the regime arose which were not matters of interethnic tension. From the 1980s, the UMNO-PAS rivalry for Malay-Muslim support was increasingly laden with competing claims of Islamic religiosity. Yet the political meanings of ethnicity and religion were not static: they changed with the socioeconomic transformation of Malay society. Forty years of urbanization, education, extension of capitalist social relations, acculturation to industrial discipline, and engagement with globalization restructured Malay society socially and ideologically (Shamsul 1988; Abdul Rahman 2002). For a decade from September 1998, with the exceptions of the Bar Council’s Walk for Justice and the HINDRAF protest (Bunnell et al. 2010; Govindasamy 2015), all major demonstrations of dissent were, if they had to be given an ethnic coloration, predominantly Malay affairs. Before GE12, those demonstrations included the Reformasi protests in support of Anwar (Sabri 2000), the commemoration of Operasi Lalang at the Kamunting Camp (October 27, 2000),6) the anti-toll protest at Kesas Highway (November 5, 2000), and the BERSIH rally of 2007. After GE12, the trend of majority Malay participation in protests continued with BERSIH 2.0, BERSIH 3, and the Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat in 2013.

Thus, intra-Malay politics had gone past “out-Islamisation,” that is, the efforts made by UMNO and PAS to outdo each other in promoting the role of Islam in public affairs (Liow 2003; 2009). Disputes over material matters abounded, especially over the federal government’s refusal to pay oil royalty to Terengganu and Kelantan as long as they were ruled by PAS although Malays formed about 95 percent of the population in each state. The social bases of UMNO-PAS rivalry also extruded from the rural Malay heartland to the urban constituencies of the west coast of the peninsula. In the latter locations, PAS reached out to younger, urban Malays who formed the backbone of the Reformasi and BERSIH rallies (Ahmad Fauzi 2008; Hadiz and Khoo 2011). Likewise, the profile of PAS’s candidates in elections changed. From 1999 on, PAS fielded more urban, professional candidates (such as Dzukefly Ahmad Hatta Ramli, Husam Musa, Khalid Samad, Lo’ Lo Mohd Ghazali, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Nizar Jamaluddin, and Siti Mariah Mahmud). These became new non-ulama (non-religious scholars) PAS leaders who drew their political sensibilities and mobilizing capabilities from their immersion in urbanization, higher (and, for some, overseas) education, and professional occupations (Dzulkefly 2012; Mujahid 2012).

The terrain of dissent further changed with PKR’s revitalization after its severe defeat in the April 2004 election. The UMNO-PKR rivalry, originally marked by the Anwar affair, seemed to be irrelevant after Mahathir’s retirement and Anwar’s release from prison in September 2004. Besides, PKR was not a Malay party in the way of UMNO or PAS: PKR had non-Malay leaders who came from NGOs or the former Parti Rakyat (People’s Party). The UMNO-PKR rivalry was sharpened, however, by the emergence of “new PKR Malays” before and after GE12. Young, urban, and professional PKR Malays, such as Fuziah Salleh, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Nurul Izzah Anwar, and Rafizi Ramli,7) emerged as the social types to demand merit, competence, equity, transparency, and accountability—the qualities of good governance that underlay the urban middle-class electoral platform of the predominantly non-Malay DAP.

These new dissidents made clear that their anti-regime “Malay politics” grew out of the grievances of many Malays, but they were grievances that did not target an ethnic Other, namely, the Chinese. That made it easier for more non-Malays to join the post-2008 rallies and protests: any threat of disorder or violence came from the direction of the regime, its police, and its allies. In major urban centers, and especially in Kuala Lumpur, multiethnic dissent was grounded in the material experiences of overlapping socioeconomic grievances. The most readily shared sociopolitical issues were high-profile corruption,8) institutional degradation,9) arrogance of power,10) socioeconomic marginalization,11) higher costs of living, rising incidence of crime, and deteriorating standards of governance.12) Such were populist issues, too, that resonated with disaffection over stresses in the social reproduction of urban life. The leading dissidents and PR spokespeople could package those populist issues as a counter-hegemonic message inasmuch as corruption scandals and controversies continually beset the regime.

In retrospect, the organizers of the major protests had two critical achievements. First, they developed viable, cohesive, and extensive networks of dissent. With BERSIH 3, the peak of BERSIH mobilization before GE13, dissident networks were even visible in international media. As demonstrations were held in 72 cities around the world in solidarity with the actual march to Dataran Merdeka, images, YouTube video clips, and other forms of Internet postings of “global BERSIH” went viral. In the creation of an “imagined community of dissent” (Khoo 2016), both creative and optimistic, BERSIH’s organizers, participants, and supporters seized the initiative from the regime although the latter had incomparably greater resources and controlled all non-Internet-based print and broadcast media in the country. The second achievement was the opposition’s use of the dissent to build an inclusive political platform. On this platform dissenting views, calls for alternative policies, and demands for higher standards of public conduct coalesced into firm electoral support for a two-coalition system.

Transforming Opposition

To reach their goal of a two-coalition system, the opposition had to overcome doubts about their viability as an alternative coalition. Besides knowing only the government of BN (or its predecessor, the Alliance) at the national level, the electorate had witnessed past failures to maintain stable opposition coalitions. Friends and foes repeatedly asked, “Can a predominantly non-Malay and secular DAP, a multiethnic PKR with a majority-Malay/Muslim leadership, and an ulama-led Malay/Muslim PAS form a coalition that would not be torn apart by ideological differences?” After all, the DAP’s objection to what it saw as PAS’s commitment to establishing an “Islamic state” was a critical factor in breaking up the Reformasi-inspired Barisan Alternatif (BA, Alternative Front).13)

This basic problem of the opposition, explored in this section, was satisfactorily resolved in different ways that transformed the opposition itself. One way to avoid major disagreements was to find common cause for cooperation, such as a demand for “clean and fair elections,” the slogan of the original 2007 BERSIH rally that the opposition parties jointly organized with the support of a number of NGOs (interview with Liew Chin Tong;14) Liew 2013). Another way was to adapt each party’s program to present a shared, if not unified, platform. To that end, the DAP, which had been portrayed by UMNO and its allies as a Chinese chauvinist party, set aside issues of Chinese culture, language, and education and urged voters to support “Change!”—that is, social, political, and institutional change. To moderate its non-Malay image, the DAP recruited and fielded some prominent Malay members as candidates in GE12. In parallel, PAS replaced its Islamic State Document of 2004 with a Negara Berkebajikan (Welfare state) proposal for GE12. By the latter, less discordant and more inclusive, ideological realignment, PAS strengthened PR’s claim of being dedicated to “justice, good governance, transparency, accountability and human rights”—causes that could transcend ethnocentric and religious considerations (Ahmad Fauzi 2008, 233) without compromising the universalism that Islamists claimed for their faith.

From PKR, and Anwar Ibrahim personally, came another way to achieve a semblance of ideological compatibility for PR. By 2006, Anwar had evidently recovered from the ordeals of six years’ imprisonment to reenter politics and gain acceptance as the de facto leader of the opposition. With that stature, he boldly tackled what was probably the most intractable ethno-cultural issue of all—the status of the NEP. Before large Malay crowds, and not just non-Malay audiences, he criticized actually existing NEP as mere justification for UMNO’s power holders and their corporate allies to enrich themselves. Anwar rushed in where no Malay politician had dared to tread: he called for the abolition of the NEP.15) In place of the NEP, Anwar offered a New Economic Agenda (NEA). The NEA was not radical in and of itself. It was not meant to turn the economic system upside down. Yet it was novel in supplying a non-ethnically defined commitment to public welfare and popular rejection of a “timeless Malay agenda” that was raised by many delegates at UMNO’s 2006 and 2007 general assemblies.

With such intra-coalitional compromises, the strands of opposition represented by the DAP, PAS, and PKR converged and found confluence with organized nonpartisan streams of dissent and unorganized dissatisfaction with the regime. From PKR came the revived Reformasi stances that drew on Anwar’s populist leanings (Khoo 2003, 91–95) to oppose a “greedy and opulent clique”16) that enriched itself by UMNO’s patronage. From the DAP there was the largely non-Malay, urban middle-class, taxpayer-based, anti-statist anger at financial abuses and high-level corruption, combined with widespread Chinese resentment of the Chinese-bashing openly displayed at the UMNO general assemblies. And PAS mobilized the rural and lower- to mid-level urban revulsion against UMNO’s corruption and what one of its leaders dismissed as UMNO’s “counterfeit religiosity of the rich man” (Kershaw 1969, 65fn13). When the three opposition parties separately campaigned with the differentially nuanced messages conveyed by the DAP’s “Change!,” PAS’s Negara Berkebajikan, and PKR’s New Economic Agenda, they could keep faith with their own core constituencies. Collectively, though, they had attained a populist, anti-oligarchic commonality that could be received across ethnic boundaries. Against the odds and much skepticism, the PR displayed a measure of ideological compatibility, roughly hewn and yet genuine and effective for mounting a practical challenge to the regime. Not for nothing was a pro-PR slogan to appeal to voters thus: Naik Roket pergi ke Bulan mendapatkan Keadilan! (Ride the rocket to the moon for justice!)17)

The Zenith of Dissent

Never before GE13 had UMNO-BN had to fight so desperately to retain power. Never before had dissent and opposition been so focused and popular. Yet the zenith of dissent did not solve all the opposition’s problems, as may be seen in this section. As noted at the outset, PR gained only 7 more seats in GE13, winning 89 against BN’s 133. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain the severe imbalances in the electoral system—and in institutional, financial, media, and other kinds of power and resources—and how they heavily favored BN and UMNO in first-past-the-post competition. Despite all that, while BN won 60 percent of actual seats, PR won 50.9 percent of the popular vote against BN’s 47.4 percent. One important inference can be drawn from the opposition’s first ever “popular victory”: the dissent and opposition had attained such depth by then that their character and quality could influence the future course of politics, the point of this section.

In an illiberal political system where a replacement of the regime had not occurred before, to remain in opposition was to be stuck in dissent, struggling to find voice and impact against the weight of institutionalized power. Within parliament, the BN regime with its large majority would not grant PR, as it had never ever granted the opposition any scope to influence the drafting of laws or, for that matter, any meaningful chance of blocking their passage. Outside parliament, the regime continued to use its police, judicial, and bureaucratic powers to charge or prosecute PR parties, leaders, and representatives on different kinds of issues. Nor would the federal government, armed with highly centralized power, allow PR to sway policy formulation. As it had behaved toward any opposition-led state government in the past, the federal government was hostile toward the PR-led state governments, cramping them by bureaucratic means, withholding funds for development, and seeking other ways of undermining them. Under such circumstances, if the integrity of PR as a coalition came under great stress, it owed in no small measure to the external pressures that UMNO-BN and the federal government brought to bear on the PR parties and leaders, and not simply any intrinsic ideological incompatibility among the partners. Maneuvering space was limited for PR. Still, the politics of dissent and opposition had been dynamic in its pace and spread, innovative and challenging in its expressions, and self-transforming in its impact. In short, PR was not bereft of experience or non-financial resources, especially with the momentum it acquired after late 2007, as an analysis of five different aspects of continuing dissent and opposition would show.

First, PR strove to consolidate itself away from the requirements and stresses of electoral campaigning. Through its state governments, PR tried to offer alternative models of administration and governance. When it ruled Perak for a year before being toppled by UMNO’s coup in February 2009, the PAS-headed PR government took a reformist stance to assist various social groups of different ethnic backgrounds whose problems with land tenure, for example, had been neglected by BN during the latter’s rule (interviews with Nizar Jamaluddin and Jeyakumar Devaraj). The PKR-led Selangor government looked for practical solutions to the mundane but important grievances of the populace that had returned the PR government with a two-thirds majority in GE13. New initiatives were explored in areas of affordable public housing and more efficient urban waste disposal systems (interview with Dzulkefly Ahmad). The PR parties and/or state governments established their own think tanks to improve policy formulation on socioeconomic matters (interviews with Yin Shao Loong and Zairil Khir Johari). Whether such initiatives were successfully implemented could determine how credibly PR could claim to be capable of being a better national government. In future competition with BN, the strength of PR’s performance would be closely scrutinized by voters and specific economic and social interests alike. It would not have been lost on anyone, much less the PR leadership, that just two defections from PKR and one from the DAP led to the fall of the PR government in Perak, while problems of administration, leadership, and disunity in the PAS-led Kedah government allowed UMNO to recapture Kedah in GE13 (interviews with Toh Kin Woon and Wong Hoy Cheong).

Second, PR strove to construct common platforms to resolve a host of contentious economic, religious, and regionalist issues. Sensitive to skepticism over its alleged ideological compatibility, the PR leadership presented a show of consensus each time it took a decision on a controversial issue. And many controversial issues had arisen, often raised by UMNO, the regime’s bureaucratic arms, or its NGO allies, and publicized by UMNO-owned and state-regulated print and broadcast media, UMNO’s paid “cybertroopers,” and otherwise pro-UMNO social media. A key aim of such controversies was to divide PAS and the DAP over ethnic and religious matters. Unexpectedly DAP-PAS cooperation improved between 2007 and 2013. Several reasons accounted for this development. Supporters of PR exerted enormous public pressure on the two parties to make a success of PR’s coalitional framework. In a crucial instance, which arose in Perak after GE12, the DAP conceded the position of Menteri Besar (chief minister) of the state to PAS although the DAP had won 18 seats in the Perak State Legislative Assembly while PAS had only 6. The DAP’s decision, taken reluctantly, was legally forced by the stipulation in the constitution of Perak that the Menteri Besar had to be an ethnic Malay—and none of the DAP’s elected representatives was Malay. Yet, the DAP’s reluctance was partly overcome by its supporters’ strong and almost unanimous online appeals that the party should make a “sacrifice” and do whatever it took to keep a PR government in place. In turn, it made all the difference to the DAP that PAS would defend it in public against accusations of the DAP’s being anti-Malay and anti-Islam. For that matter, PR’s integrity would have been shattered right after GE12 had PAS accepted UMNO’s secret overtures to form UMNO-PAS “Malay unity” governments in Selangor and Perak. Likewise, PAS protected the integrity of PR by rejecting UMNO’s urgings thereafter to engage in “Malay/Muslim unity” talks18) (interview with Dzulkefly Ahmad). To some degree, it eased relations between the DAP and PAS that they did not compete for seat allocations within PR because each appealed to a core constituency that did not overlap with the other’s (interview with Wong Hoy Cheong). On several religious controversies, because of PR’s unified position, non-Muslims came to regard PAS as a moderate and tolerant party in contrast with their denunciation of UMNO for manipulating religious tensions that threatened to encroach on minority rights in religious matters (interview with Mujahid Yusof Rawa). Perhaps the iconic moment of DAP-PAS cooperation was reached when the Registrar of Societies threatened not to recognize the DAP leadership just two days before the nomination day for GE13. Faced with the threat that its candidates could not be nominated by their own party, the DAP decided with PAS’s assent that, if they were so compelled by the Registrar of Societies, all DAP candidates would contest under the PAS ticket. The DAP-PAS stance, later modified to have DAP candidates stand on the PAS ticket in Peninsular Malaysia and on the PKR ticket in Sabah and Sarawak, compelled the Registrar to rescind a threat that was recognized (even by some UMNO leaders) as a blunder.19)

Third, there was, roughly speaking, not a mere handful but a critical mass of dissidents and oppositionists with common and comparable experiences. The veterans among them could trace experiences back to shared time in detention, the outrage felt at Anwar’s humiliation, the call of Reformasi, and BA’s formation and collapse. For younger or newer ones, arguably the single most important formative experience was to witness the 2008 tsunami and draw from it the inspiring lesson that “Change was possible” and that BN could be defeated (interviews with Roland Chia, Rafizi Ramli, Terence Siambun, and Junz Wong). During their university years, when student politics was tightly circumscribed by the University and University Colleges Act, some younger activists and politicians had made special efforts to cooperate with their counterparts from different ethnic backgrounds (interviews with Adam Adli, Ginnie Lim, and Ong Jin Cheng). Later it was somewhat easier for them, as it was for younger PR politicians, to be assigned roles in co-organizing PR activities because they had had no part of the divisive polemics that had passed between the older leaders of each party (interviews with Liew Chin Tong and Anthony Loke). Many party-based and nonpartisan activists were convinced by the mass demonstrations and the outcome of GE12 that political reform was not vaguely desirable but attainable provided they put in the effort. Some had worked in campaign after campaign even when their hopes were dashed because of their inexperienced assessments and actual conditions (interviews with Ginnie Lim, Lee Khai Loon, and Junz Wong). Some activists were inspired to initiate party organization and mobilization in their local areas to prepare early for GE13 (interviews with Terence Siambun and Roland Chia). The PR parties fielded many young and inexperienced candidates. In 2008 PKR and, to a lesser extent, the DAP were compelled to do so because they lacked suitable candidates to run in what seemed like unpromising contests. The post-GE12 situation changed with the arrival of young candidates who had had some exposure or shown their commitment to dissident activism in different areas (interviews with Nurul Izzah Anwar, Rafizi Ramli, N. Surendran, and Junz Wong). From then, PR was steadily grooming a “second line” corps of leaders who were already blooded along shared pathways of dissent (interviews with Liew Chin Tong, Nurul Izzah Anwar, and Hannah Yeoh). Many went on to assume responsibility in intermediate positions in politics and government (interviews with Rafizi Ramli, Hannah Yeoh, and Zairil Khir Johari). Consequently, after GE13, some younger PR politicians exuded an air of confidence that they could be the key bearers of the oppositionist mission.

Fourth, nonpartisan dissent and party-based opposition retained the symbiosis they had developed through different campaigns that, before GE13, peaked in the BERSIH 2.0, BERSIH 3, and Himpunan Kebangitan Rakyat rallies. The BERSIH 2.0 Committee, which launched its rallies for electoral reform as nonpartisan civil society initiatives, called for the support of all political parties, including BN parties. As there was not a chance of the latter’s participation, it was moot whether that all-embracing call prevented BERSIH 2.0 from being identified with the opposition. On the one hand, the PR parties could mobilize a large presence of their members and supporters. Without them, BERSIH 2.0 would have remained a collection of small NGOs, all unable to bring a sizeable rally to the streets. On the other hand, BERSIH 2.0, led by prominent individuals and reputable activists, possessed a preeminent civil society branding. Without that, PR would have found it much more difficult to promote a nonpartisan demand for electoral reform (interviews with P. Subramaniam, Toh Kin Woon, and Wong Chin Huat). Hence, the relations between civil society dissidents and party-based oppositionists were two-way affairs. A number of activists joined the parties (especially the DAP and PKR) and were groomed or selected at short notice to run for elections (interviews with Ginnie Lim, Lee Khai Loon, and N. Surendran). Other activists chose to remain “on the outside,” declining offers of nomination for election to avoid the encumbrances and loss of personal autonomy that came with party affiliation (interview with Fadiah). Yet others preferred to be independent “facilitators” who could better cross party and organizational lines for a range of causes (interviews with Adam Adli, Peter Kallang, and Ong Jin Cheng). One activist who supported the opposition was nonetheless ready to treat PR as “the ruling class in some states” (interview with Fahmi Reza). In any case, the scope of activism ranged from conducting structured programs in civic and legal education (interview with Hou Jian You) to staging spontaneous, small-scale “direct action” or “flash mob” events (interview with Sean Ho). The scope could encompass personal intervention as and when it suited one’s “punk” principles (interview with Yuen Kok Leong). Activists and oppositionists alike were aware that differences could arise between them, as when PR in power (state governments) did not accede to civil society expectations (Rodan and Hughes 2014; interviews with Loh Kok Wah and P. Ramakrishnan). But the realm of dissent was comparatively small, while harassment by the regime was common. Necessity as much as virtue encouraged bonding between nonpartisan dissent and party-based opposition as a characteristic of counter-hegemonic activity.

Finally, dissidents and oppositionists cultivated a “real world” appreciation of pluralist politics. The PR’s structure was loosely egalitarian. Unlike UMNO’s domination of BN from the latter’s founding, no party in PR could even claim to be first among equals. After GE12, PKR had the highest number of parliamentary seats, but not by much, and Anwar was accepted as PR’s de facto leader but not much more than that. After GE13, the DAP had its all-time high representation of 38 seats in parliament. Yet even if it was unrealistic enough to try, the DAP could not have dominated PKR (30 seats) and PAS (21 seats). To some extent, PR’s relatively balanced proportion of parliamentary representation was tied to patterns of the ethnic composition and spatial distribution of constituencies that resulted from the regime’s many exercises of gerrymandering and malapportionment. The rough internal parity in seats could be established as a fact of PR life, so to speak, as long as the three parties could agree to an amiable allocation of seats for subsequent elections. Then, PR leaders could credibly claim a commitment to consensus building and pluralist exchanges. Nurul Izzah Anwar noted that PR had “entered its fourth year” and “the people could judge for themselves” whether the coalition would continue. Of PR’s coalition-building effort, she added, “It is a political process for any coalition, it isn’t automatic. What is important is for the component parties to have consensus on the constitution and a common policy framework” (quoted in Aw 2013). In case PR faced a crisis, Dzulkefly Ahmad (albeit with a tone of exasperation) reminded “all leaders to desist from shooting one another” because [a]nyone can hurl any suggestion, recipe, formula and so on, but this will test the unity, fullness and maturity of PR as a coalition of parties” (quoted in Nizam and Yusrizal 2014).

Moreover, the attacks on PR usually targeted each party and its leaders along chauvinistic ethno-religious lines. The DAP would be accused of being anti-Malay or anti-Islam and PKR and PAS of betraying the Malays and Islam. In response, PR parties had to develop a cautiously balanced approach to majority-minority relations, yet another spur to adopting pluralist practices. Indeed, one of PR’s unforeseen achievements was to dislodge UMNO-BN from the political center (interview with Liew Chin Tong). From late 2007 to GE13, PR crafted a strong appeal for urban middle-class voters who wearied of UMNO’s ethno-religious manipulations and disdain for its non-Malay-based parties. If a measure of suffering sometimes sharpened one’s sensitivity toward the position and plight of others, the PR leaders, themselves targets of repression and undemocratic politics, were logical figures to press for reforms toward more democratic government, pluralist competition, guarantees of constitutional rights, etc.20) Some PAS leaders had striven to formulate principles of democratic Islamism that would place fair and open pluralist competition at the center of any democracy that PR wanted to construct (Dzulkefly 2012; Mujahid 2012). In practice, some of PAS’s elected representatives did not hesitate to defend churches and Christian communities within their constituencies, and to promote interfaith dialogues that had been spurned by the regime’s leaders and their NGO allies. A number of PR politicians who had entered party politics from prior activism in rights-based NGOs remained close to those organizations (interviews with N. Surendran and Jeyakumar Devaraj). Of the dissidents and activists who stayed outside political parties, many organized or joined campaigns to support ethnic minority groups (interviews with Jannie Lasimbang and Wong Chin Huat), dispossessed communities (interviews with Baru Bian, Peter Kallang, and Simon Siah) or victims of human rights violations (interviews with N. Surendran and Fadiah Nadwa Zikri). Some dissidents disagreed over the PR’s pre-GE13 position on the “Indian question” (interview with Jeyakumar Devaraj, N. Ganesan, and N. Surendran). The majority of dissidents would critically support PR but reject UMNO’s “ethnic verticalism” or its insistence that Malay rights must come before others’ rights (interviews with Jeyakumar Devaraj, N. Surendran, and Zairil Khir Johari). In the case of the short-lived PAS-led PR government of Perak, its land allocation policies broke with UMNO’s practices that discriminated against poor communities in general and non-Malay communities in particular (interview with Nizar Jamaluddin). Some political matters—such as the NEP and the state’s policies, non-Muslim rights, and support for all school systems—continued to be “sensitive” issues that tested the PR’s cohesion and unity even as the coalition tried to move from ethnically oriented policy positions in more inclusive directions.

Divides and Dissent Reconfigured

At GE13 the streams of dissent, which had swelled and converged from 2007, could not overcome the structural, institutional, and resource advantages of the regime. Nonetheless, they left deep imprints on the political terrain, producing results that were variously unsatisfactory for the rival coalitions. For the second time since 2008, a recalcitrant electorate had locked the antagonists in a stalemate on the peninsula, gifting the parties of Sabah and Sarawak with a vital role in shaping the course of politics and government. This final section analyzes some important ramifications for dissent as a whole. For Anwar and Najib, the electoral outcome was scarcely to be welcomed. On the one hand, PR’s failure to dislodge BN exposed Anwar to continuing persecution. The UMNO regime, unrestrained by any fear of a pre-election backlash, acted to cripple PR’s leadership by removing Anwar.21) In January 2012 the High Court had acquitted Anwar of “Sodomy II,” the popular term for the charge of sodomy leveled against Anwar in mid-2008 (given his first conviction of sodomy in 2000 that was finally overturned by the Federal Court in 2004). The Court of Appeal reversed the verdict in March 2014, the Federal Court upheld the reversal in February 2015, and Anwar was again jailed. On the other hand, BN’s performance was worse in some ways than in 2008, for which Abdullah Badawi had been ousted in 2009 from the premiership by his own party. Certain UMNO veterans openly warned that Najib’s leadership could bring defeat in the next election. Perhaps Najib escaped being deposed like Abdullah because GE13 inflicted less of a shock on the system than the tsunami of 2008, and UMNO, having recovered some of its 2008 losses, would not risk another sudden removal of its leader.

Election’s end did not narrow the BN-PR divide. Najib decried a “Chinese tsunami” of anti-regime sentiment for eroding BN’s support. Anwar denounced electoral fraud for denying PR power despite its securing the popular vote. Could either man have supplied a different narrative of GE13? Najib clung to the primacy of an ethnic divide upon which UMNO’s dominance rested. Anwar maintained his call for reform, the goal of oppositionists and dissidents alike since the triple rallies of 2007. In short, the BN-PR rivalry seemed set to resume as a drudging war of position along that basic rift between ethnic and reformist politics.

Any such expectation was shattered in February 2015. On February 10, the Federal Court’s decision upheld Anwar’s conviction of Sodomy II. Two days later the PAS Spiritual Leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat died.22) And on February 28, Sarawak Report (2015) broke its investigative story of what it called “the heist of the century,” linked to the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB (1 Malaysia Development Berhad). The fallout from these events reconfigured political divides and dissident alignments.

The first two events exacted a heavy toll on PR. Returning Anwar to jail for another five years matched UMNO’s strategy of removing the “glue” that had held the PR intact as a coalition. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, became PR’s nominal leader, as she was Barisan Alternatif’s when he was previously in prison. Wan Azizah admitted that she could not bring Anwar’s savvy or authority to the position. Nik Aziz, though, was nothing if not charisma, shrewdness, and strength (Farish 2003; Khoo 2004). With him as Menteri Besar, Kelantan held out against UMNO’s blandishments and the federal government’s hostility for 25 years. Given his influential position in PAS, Nik Aziz had helped PAS “progressives” to win key positions in the party, and they backed PR and Anwar’s leadership (Farish 2015a; 2015b). Nik Aziz, implacably distrustful of UMNO, was scornful of PAS leaders who wanted to enter “unity talks” with UMNO after GE12. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss in detail the corrosive barrage of latent ideological tensions, unilateral programmatic initiatives, intra- and inter-party rivalries, and lack of personal empathy that washed over PR in the absence of Anwar and Nik Aziz. Suffice it to summarize the starkest outcomes. The PAS “progressives” were swept out of their party positions in June 2015. They abandoned PAS to form a new party, Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah, National Trust Party). At the same time, a DAP-PAS rupture tore PR just as a similar rift did the BA before and ostensibly because of “ideological incompatibility,” too. And although it tried, a PKR leadership that was itself burdened with factional strife could hardly juggle two alliances—one of the DAP, PKR, and Amanah, and the other of PAS and PKR.

The third event of February 2015, the exposé of the 1MDB scandal, which directly implicated Najib, should have made the regime’s position untenable. The Sarawak Report story was followed by mounting evidence garnered by investigators at home and in several overseas jurisdictions of fraud, corruption, and money laundering on an unprecedented scale. Najib remained virtually silent on the issue. His cabinet and UMNO allies who spoke for him could not rebut allegations posed in and out of parliament. His lawyers threatened but did not file defamation suits against a host of accusers, including Sarawak Report and the Wall Street Journal. Instead, Najib dismissed several high-ranking public officers believed to have compiled a legal case against him. He co-opted several potential critics in UMNO, while the police harried dissidents with investigations for sedition. In mid-2015, as disaffection spread, Najib sacked Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Minister of Rural and Regional Development Shafie Apdal. Half a year later, Najib’s allies in Kedah forced out Menteri Besar Mukhriz Mahathir. This was followed by the expulsion of Muhiyuddin and Mukhriz, the withdrawal of Shafie, and the departure of a small number of low-ranking office-bearers and members from UMNO.

Now, when the constituency of opposition seemed to be fatigued by defeat and disarray, fresh initiatives of dissent arose with new political divides. From August 29 to 30, 2015, BERSIH organized its largest ever gathering in Kuala Lumpur, ending before midnight marked the 58th anniversary of Merdeka. In a twist of history, BERSIH 4 marked the moment of the 90-year-old Mahathir’s reentry into politics—as a dissident determined not merely to oust Najib but to defeat UMNO altogether. Soon after, Mahathir, Muhyiddin, and Mukhriz founded a new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu, United Pribumi of Malaysia),23) that has since joined Amanah, the DAP, and PKR as a coalition. What the opposition gained in Bersatu as an ally in reformist politics it lost in PAS after Hadi and Najib engineered an implicit pact that did not mend the ethno-religious divide. No one knows yet where the intra-Malay divide will lead: presently, the Malay community is confronted by appeals for support from five sources composed in two alliances—UMNO-PAS and Amanah-Bersatu-PKR. Perhaps not least of all the divides is a regionalist rift between Sabah and the federal government that has opened up since Shafie Apdal founded a new “Sabah party,” Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan, Sabah Heritage Party) in Sabah, which has attracted some opposition representatives.

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of Merdeka, therefore, contemporary politics in Malaysia is marked by sociopolitical divides and dissent that endure, not in static but contingent forms, dynamically reconfigured as conditions and protagonists change.

Accepted: June 29, 2018


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Interviews (in alphabetical order of interviewees’ names)

Adam Adli, Student leader, Petaling Jaya, January 25, 2014.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, Chairperson, BERSIH 2.0 Committee, Kuala Lumpur, January 25, 2014.

Baru Bian, Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Member, Kuching, October 15, 2013.

Mark Bujang, Director, Borneo Resources Institute Malaysia Sarawak, Miri, October 17, 2013.

Roland Chia, Sabah State Assembly Member, Kota Kinabalu, October 22, 2013.

Dzulkefly Ahmad, Member of Parliament, Kuala Lumpur, January 23, 2014.

Fadiah Nadwa Zikri, Member, Lawyers for Liberty, Kuala Lumpur, January 22, 2014.

Fahmi Reza, Artist and activist, Kuala Lumpur, January 20, 2014.

Fuziah Salleh, Member of Parliament, Kelana Jaya, February 15, 2012.

N. Ganesan, Member, HINDRAF, Penang, January 28, 2014.

Sean Ho, Student activist, Universiti Sarawak Malaysia, Kuching, October 15, 2013.

Hou Jian You, Member, Loyarburok, Kuala Lumpur, January 22, 2014.

Jannie Lasimbang, Secretary-General, Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia, Penampang, October 19, 2013.

Jeyakumar Devaraj, Member of Parliament, Ipoh, February 21, 2012, and May 2, 2013.

Peter Kallang, Indigenous rights activist, Miri, October 18, 2013.

Lee Khai Loon, Penang State Legislative Assembly Member, Penang, February 2, 2014.

Liew Chin Tong, Member of Parliament, Penang, January 2, 2012.

Ginnie Lim, DAP candidate in GE13, Melaka, January 24, 2014.

Francis Loh Kok Wah, Professor, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, January 28, 2014.

Anthony Loke Siew Fook, Member of Parliament, Kuala Lumpur, January 21, 2014.

Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Member of Parliament, February 18, 2012.

Nizar Jamaluddin, Menteri Besar of Perak, 2008–9, Ipoh, February 21, 2012.

Nurul Izzah Anwar, Member of Parliament, Kuala Lumpur, January 20, 2014.

Ong Jin Cheng, Human rights activist, SUARAM, Penang, December 9, 2013.

Rafizi Ramli, Member of Parliament, Sungai Besi, January 20, 2014.

P. Ramakrishnan, President, Aliran, Penang, May 7, 2013.

Terence Siambun, Sabah State Legislative Assembly Member, Kota Kinabalu, October 21, 2013.

Simon Siah, Lawyer, Kuching, October 14, 2013.

P. Subramaniam, Member, BERSIH 2.0 Committee, Kuala Lumpur, April 30, 2013.

N. Surendran, Member of Parliament, Penang, December 12, 2014.

Toh Kin Woon, Member, BERSIH 2.0 Committee, Penang, February 1, 2014.

Wong Chin Huat, Member, BERSIH 2.0 Committee, December 10, 2013.

Wong Hoy Cheong, Artist and member of PKR, Penang, January 29, 2014.

Junz Wong, Sabah State Legislative Assembly Member, Kota Kinabalu, October 13, 2013.

Hannah Yeoh, Speaker, Selangor State Legislative Assembly, Subang Jaya, January 21, 2014.

Yin Shao Loong, Researcher, Kuala Lumpur, April 29, 2013.

Yuen Kok Leong, Lecturer, Universiti Sarawak Malaysia, Kuching, October 15, 2013.

Zairil Khir Johari, Member of Parliament, Penang, December 11, 2013.

1) For different accounts of the social origins and policy differences in UMNO and the administration that precipitated the split after UMNO’s 1987 party election, see Shamsul (1988), Khoo (1992), and Khoo (1995).

2) John Funston (2016) gives a detailed and instructive account of UMNO’s transformation as a party; on the “fresh crisis” noted here but discussed in the last section of this chapter, see Funston (2016, 123–132, 146).

3) See Brown (2005), Loh and Johan (2003), and Maznah (2003) on the 1999 election; Maznah (2008) and Pepinsky (2009) on GE12; and Johan, Lee, and Mohamed Nawab (2015), Khoo (2016), and Weiss (2013) on GE13.

4) For example, the Registrar of Societies refused to acknowledge PR as a legal organization and the Election Commission would not permit the PR parties to stand for election under a common symbol. Thus DAP, PAS, and PKR candidates ran on three separate tickets.

5) Regarding the attempts by PR’s predecessor, Barisan Alternatif (BA, Alternative Front), to form a stable coalition, see Hilley (2001) on PAS’s need to reorder its ideological and programmatic goals in 1999–2000, and Khoo (2003) on “the cultural imperative of coalition-building.”

6) Operasi Lalang was the police term for the mass detention of dissident politicians and social activists on October 27, 1987 (Khoo 1995, 282–286).

7) Interviews with Fuziah Salleh, Nurul Izzah Anwar, and Rafizi Ramli.

8) Abdullah had promised with fanfare to investigate 18 “high-profile corruption cases” as part of institutional reform. The cases did not see the public light.

9) Many despised cases of institutional degradation were related to the conduct of the judiciary, the police, and, after March 2008, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

10) In 2008 Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan, Malaysian People’s Movement) was completely defeated in Penang, where it had headed the BN state government since 1969. Gerakan President Koh Tsu Koon said that his party had suffered a voters’ backlash against UMNO’s “arrogance of power.”

11) Strong resentment over their “marginalization” galvanized the Indian community as a dissident force (Bunnell et al. 2010).

12) NGOs regularly criticized the regime’s low standards of governance.

13) “This writer, who was also a secretariat member of the Barisan Alternatif . . . witnessed its demise after PAS launched the Islamic State Document” (Dzulkefly 2012, 185).

14) The designations and affiliations of all interviewees are given in the References.

15) The closest to this was Mahathir’s move to “hold the NEP in abeyance,” that is, to suspend the restructuring of NEP, in 1986, which, among other things, led to the UMNO split of 1987 (Khoo 1995, 136–143).

16) From the public declaration made in Permatang Pauh, Penang, on September 12, 1998.

17) The “rocket” is DAP’s party symbol, the “moon” is PAS’s, and Keadilan in PKR’s name means “justice.”

18) Those were divisive issues for PAS. The line was drawn between those who wanted to form governments with UMNO in Perak and Selangor so that “the position of Islam could be consolidated” and those who maintained that “the majority of those who voted PAS had rejected UMNO and BN” (Mujahid 2012, 61).

19) While its agreement to let DAP use its logo was sincere and a brilliant tactic by PAS to gain non-Malay/Muslim confidence, some Malays might not have viewed PAS-DAP amiability with enthusiasm. PAS Deputy President Muhammad Sabu observed of the 2013 electoral outcomes: “in [ethnically] mixed areas, PAS did well. The Chinese were threatened with ‘1 vote for PR is 1 vote for Hudud’ but the Chinese said, ‘We want Ubah (Change), we do not care!’ So, 85% of Chinese voted for Pakatan. Which is why we could get Selangor back. The Malays were trapped in the racial issue, which is why we [PAS] lost in Malay majority areas. It was the fence sitters—the government officers—who voted for BN. The postal votes . . . we got only 15%” (Zakiah 2013).

20) Former PAS President Fadzil Noor (1937–2002) said that he had gained a better appreciation of the legitimate concerns of non-Malays and non-Muslims in Malaysia after observing the plight of an ethno-religious minority with whom PAS readily empathized, namely, the Malay Muslims of Southern Thailand.

21) “Najib gives every appearance of preparing for snap polls on the assumption that Anwar will be out of the way and the opposition decapitated” (Tisdall 2011).

22) For a short news report on Nik Aziz’s death, see Teoh (2015).

23) Pribumi in Malay is usually taken to mean “indigenous” or “native”; no English translation is given here because it would appear awkward in the party’s name.


Vol. 7, No. 3, Simon SOON


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Creativity in Dissent: From the Politics of Pedagogy
to the Art of Pedagogy

Simon Soon*

*Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
e-mail: simonsoon[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.3_449

This essay examines the historical conditions of the politics of pedagogy that have shaped the history of postcolonial higher education and attempts at producing countermovements to its subsequent institutionalization. I consider this in relation to pedagogical practices that reference creative forms in avant-garde art and theater. A genealogy of rethinking education through creative means can be traced back to the establishment of Nanyang University and the teaching of contemporary Asian literature by Han Suyin, with later artists such as Wong Hoy Cheong engaging with Paulo Freire’s ideas on learning in Wong’s course on Third World aesthetics, Universiti Bangsar Utama’s reimagination of the role that education could play in Kuala Lumpur during the 1998 Reformasi, and most recently Buku Jalan’s decentering of education. Finally, I consider the pedagogical stakes at hand by exploring the life story of a bookseller in Kelantan and his embodiment of a local cosmopolitanism.

Keywords: pedagogy, avant-garde, Paulo Freire, student power, university education

When we think of creative dissenters in the public view from Malaysia today, two individuals stand out: Fahmi Reza (b. 1977), a filmmaker, street artist, social historian, and activist; and Zulkiflee SM Anwar Ulhaque, a.k.a. Zunar (b. 1962), a cartoonist who uses satire to comment on sociopolitical issues in the country. In 2016, as controversies surrounding the embezzlement of public money through the Malaysian government’s strategic development company 1MBD—and the noise about them—increased, the images of these two figures, who were trenchant critics of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration, also achieved wide circulation in the media. Not only were they making global headlines as public figures of political defiance through creative acts, they also came to stand for something else altogether through a collusion of signs that added up to a mythology of the rebel.

I use the word “mythology” here in the sense of the critical theorist Roland Barthes’s understanding of the term. Barthes suggests that a myth (especially modern myth) helps to naturalize worldviews and offers us simplicity of essences rather than complexity of substance (Barthes 2009, 143). After all, in the age of YouTube, the simplicity of the message behind the image has an advantage in capturing short attention spans. We may consider the “modern” myth of the rebel in relation to our case study. For example, in the case of Fahmi, he is always dressed in black and sports skinny jeans with a bandanna wrapped around his neck. The look is defined as much by his coolness as by his individuality and devil-may-care attitude, especially when compared against a conservative Malay politician in a baju Melayu who stands for communal interests and nativist rights. In the case of Zunar, photos of him being arrested in handcuffs contribute to a picture of an oppressive environment through which his cartoons attain a greater political edge. One senses a calculated projection of a certain image on the part of these two protagonists.

What do these images say? On the one hand they draw our attention away from whether or not the creative form of expression is in and of itself a potent tool for political awareness or consciousness raising. In the view of the writer and artist Tan Zihao, popular circulation of these images of the rebel distracts us from the ineffectiveness of satire as a tool for political commentary. Tan elaborates:

Satires decry the rulers as much as they mock the readers. We are not the only one laughing. The persistently slick smiles of Fahmi’s clowned Najibs and Zunar’s beaked Donald Dedaks are telling. These bastardised Najibs are still smiling because they are unwreckable. (Tan 2016)

Tan’s pithy observation overturns the popular view of locating creativity in the guise of rebellious heroes. He concludes that certain creative forms, though heavily publicized, might not ultimately possess the kind of political bark that we make them out to have. In turn, he suggests that creativity in dissent could potentially reside elsewhere, even if this is not spelled out. Not discounting the good work that both Fahmi and Zunar have undertaken, one could still wonder about their staying power and what role the media plays in installing these figures as cult personalities. Perhaps we need to ask whether, in the context of creativity in dissent, the figure of rebellion must be represented by the individual.

This paper now turns to the project of building a critical mass through creative means. With the eruption of creativity—in the streets, cyberspace, and publishing—what kind of groundwork laid the foundations for creativity and dissent? Creativity and dissent can be viewed as artistic expressions of belligerence or opposition to the status quo. Often, studies focus on the works of art themselves (Lee 2017) or identifying structural tendencies within the movement as a whole (Smeltzer 2017). However, the kind of labor invested in rethinking pedagogy in creative terms that has produced this phenomenon is not given a profile, let alone understood in relation to history.

This paper instead examines the historical conditions of the politics of pedagogy that have shaped the history of postcolonial higher education and attempts at producing a countermovement to its subsequent institutionalization. This departs from the standard narrative of art and politics that links artistic output to moments of political crisis. After all, the latter has become the standard narrative of artistic avant-garde throughout the twentieth century (Groys 2014). Moreover, the cleaving of art to politics is not always precipitated by moments of political crisis and could be generated by market demands (Syed Jaymal 2016). Rather, the essay attempts at a genealogy of artistic projects with pedagogical aims and to account for the terms in which creativity and learning were tested, in many instances, to disrupt or to find an alternative to formal institutional structures of learning.

This entails an uncovering of the intersection between art and education, especially through contemporary art initiatives that might not at first appear visual enough in the public’s perception. Nevertheless, this format draws from an intellectual lineage and mode of operation rooted in modern art’s avant-gardism. During the twentieth century, what the artistic avant-garde attempted was to challenge prevailing academic norms and definitions of what constituted the fine arts. Movements such as Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism also sought to attack the sociocultural codes and political decorum associated with art institutions and to discover an alternative mode of creative existence that was attuned to the contemporary sociopolitical situation. In the early twentieth century, the new tendencies toward abstraction were stylistic innovations that sought to question the entrenched Western classical conventions of visual representations that were premised on verisimilitudinal representation of the physical world.

The movements introduced aesthetic changes that were a shock to the bourgeois sensibility of Europeans, who saw Western tradition rooted in the naturalism of the human form in classicism as the foundation on which one could cultivate the rational and civilized man. Though the values of Western humanities were challenged by art in the twentieth century, art museums soon absorbed many of these artistic challenges into a seamless history of art as marked by a gradual progression from figurative to abstract art. Each time this was done, a new generation of avant-garde artists would seek to push the boundaries again. Therefore, in the forms of avant-garde art since World War II, one seldom sees elements that are visual in the strictest sense of the word. Works of contemporary art are never only visual in the strictest sense of the term. For example, installation as a format is about the creation of immersive spaces and many sound artworks are concerned with highlighting the aesthetic experiences that arise from the activity of listening. Then there are social-engagement projects that are understood under the framework of art, in which social processes (negotiations, discussion, arguments, confrontation, intimacy, strange encounters) are scenarios that form the basis of an artistic inquiry (Kester 2004). Often the output is not in the form of an object and is thought of as more of an outcome, or, in the words of the art critic Hal Foster, “a ruse for other practices altogether, such as pedagogy . . . or politics” (Schneider and Omar Hussain 2010). Creativity in this instance is a measure of how one is able to design a structure for conversation and learning, rather than the conventional idea of an artist producing an image to deliver what he or she intends to say.

Student Power

Fahmi gained huge media capital for his agitprop designs such as the “Badut” or clown cartoons, which caricaturize Prime Minister Najib as a comic performer and call into question his ability to lead effectively. The Badut cartoons were mass produced as stickers, T-shirts, as well as images that could be downloaded from the Internet, essentially creating a viral template that was used to spread the message across the country and worldwide via the Internet. Fahmi is also remembered for his highly celebrated documentary Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (Ten years before Merdeka), about the 1948 strike or hartal by a coalition of unionists against British machination in the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. This federation was a social, political, and economic compact that was inherited by the ruling government upon the independence of Malaya.

There is a different project of his as an entry point into what I would qualify as the “art of pedagogy.” In essence Fahmi’s Student Power, a staged performance lecture, is about the recovery of history that creatively enables a new imaginative space for political action, and it mirrors my interest in trying to account for what Buku Jalanan is doing in Malaysia today. Buku Jalanan exists as a loose collective of cultural organizers who are interested in the use of public spaces to build a network of youths through fostering a reading culture to get young Malaysians interested in politics, economics, arts, culture, and activism.

By the art of pedagogy, I suggest that we might define creativity in this instance as initiatives that expand the philosophy of learning in search of new ways of relating to each other without relying on the state. These artistic initiatives are often projects that resemble community-building cultural initiatives rather than artistic objects, initiated by artists who feel that the visual form is not sufficient to address the question of communication. Nevertheless, many projects discussed below are equally suspicious of mass media technology. Instead, they turn toward the conceptual tools afforded by contemporary art history as well as its interdisciplinary discourse to produce a working framework.

Often the output is eclectic. For example, Fahmi’s Student Power began primarily as a research cluster. The group met at an artist colony in Section 17, Petaling Jaya. This was where, together with other university students interested in local history, Fahmi began to map out the literature of how the student movement came to be in 1960s Kuala Lumpur. This was when an autonomous campus of University of Malaya was established in the new capital of Malaysia in 1959 before taking over the university name in full capacity three years later from the campus in Singapore (Tan and Lee 1996). Through interviews and archival research, Fahmi and his team were able to build up a repository of knowledge about a modern historical phenomenon that is not widely discussed in public discourse, let alone included in the history curricula of public schools. Curricula have moved away from civilizational accounts of history to stock narratives of political nationalism, which prioritizes the Malay nationalists’ contribution to the formation of UMNO (United Malays Nationalist Organisation), the dominant monoracial political party in the ruling coalition that has ruled the country since Malaya’s independence in 1957.

Fahmi’s research on the 1960s student movement was presented as a series of mobile lecture performances, often delivered by Fahmi and occasionally guested by former student leaders from the 1960s. The performances often featured only one theatrical prop, a stone dais resembling the old speaker’s corner at University of Malaya. To some extent, it symbolized free speech. But by design it was replicating the past in the very present moment when the lecture was staged, to suggest that the past spoke very much to the conditions of the present day. In turn, the prop served as a transportable rallying point that created a temporary space to reflect on the purpose of gaining an education.

The lecture performances were intended to rouse the student body into believing that education in and of itself could not be separated from political action. The context in which the political flames were fanned was, of course, by no means isolated. However, often the global anchor for this historical phenomenon referred to the student barricades of Paris 1968. But if we are to speak of the 1960s student movement as a global phenomenon, then our frame of reference need not be Paris 1968. What was happening in Malaysia was not simply a local manifestation of such a form of political agitation, but coexisting with a network of student agitations across the world. In turn, reading the global event as rhizomatic, one is reminded that these incidents were isolated from wider discourses and solidarity networks that were being forged around the world, even if the concerns were characteristically local (Weiss 2012).

As a staged performance lecture, Student Power was directed at students who were facing new challenges under a pedagogical regime at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Fahmi’s restaging of this history was strategic in a sense. Over and beyond the need to stir a new generation of students to think for themselves in political terms, Student Power—which was unveiled in 2010—was responding to deep structural changes occurring in the global education system. In 2008 Ghauth Jasmon was appointed as the new vice-chancellor of University of Malaya and pledged to return the university to its former public glory through climbing up the global university ranking system, in which the university had fallen precipitously between 2005 and 2008. With both the government and the university suffering from such an ignominious loss of confidence, the university underwent a structural overhaul (which included quantitative evaluation of academic performances, new emphasis on academic publishing, industry linkages, international engagements) largely through the design of the global consultancy firm McKinsey. McKinsey in turn created a road map that was principally concerned with measuring academic excellence based largely on the numerical game of peer-review publications and a corporatization of university education (Ong and Zairil Khir 2013). In turn, university courses were encouraged to incorporate industry training in response to corporate demands for a workforce aligned to their present-day needs. This was a reaction to populist opinion that graduates were not prepared for an employable future.

Against this top-down solution is a different kind of energy coursing through a collaborative research project like Student Power, whereby historical knowledge is reenacted and pressed into the service of rethinking contemporary debates. What Student Power underlines is that another subject position is available, if only the why’s and how’s of learning is critically assessed. This does not fall into the degree-churning mill that universities have become, tasked by the expanding middle class and their attendant bourgeois social values. Creativity in dissent comes from revising the premise of one’s learning, which is to foster imagination as key to an intellectual and emotional freedom. It is markedly different from the goal that universities in the twenty-first century are pressured to work toward.

Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning: The Postcolonial University

The question I want to ask is: Is it possible to trace the historical circumstances that resulted in the emergence of creative dissent against institutionalized pedagogy? We may have to briefly go back in time to the very foundations of modern education in Malaysia in order to characterize the nature of such changes. The chronology here is cursory, and its main aim is to highlight the historical development of educational institutions.

Unlike India, Burma, or Hong Kong, where a colonial university was founded in the early twentieth century, the first university in Malaya came into existence only after World War II. In 1949 the Carr-Saunders report recommended the establishment of University of Malaya: “the university shall act as a single medium of mingle [sic] for enhancing the understanding among the multi-ethnics [sic] and religions in the back than Malaya [sic]” (Khoo 2005, 6–9). Underlying the postwar engineering of a Malayan identity was a desire on the part of the British to secure a framework for unity. Its inclusive nature meant that multi-ethnicities also included the Europeans, who needed to safeguard their business interests even when Malaya would eventually gain political independence. The multiethnic social compact was also an alternative to Communism and revolution.

The “Malayan” discourse, though introduced by the British, was never solely defined by the colonial authority. Cultural intelligentsia of all stripes were also drawn into debates about the exact definition of “Malaya’s” vaguely worded nation-building ethos. But the Malayan discourse was never in any way singular. On the one hand, Anglophones constituted an elite class groomed to take over the leadership of an independent country. Often, members of this language community perceived that an English-language education was the only means of cultivating a cosmopolitan worldview. The cosmopolitan worldview was, in turn, regarded as an ideal for leaders of a multiethnic nation. On the other hand, being an elite class meant that Anglophones required popular support to win the elections. In a sense, ethnic-communal nationalism was tolerated as long as the Anglophone elite class were given primacy to head any ethnic-specific component parties in a race-based coalition.

While race became an overriding determinant of governmental politics, it was the larger class-driven politics at play that gave context to the establishment of Nanyang University. Nanyang University could be counted as the first large-scale attempt at reimagining what tertiary education could be on creative terms. The university was built solely through contributions from the Chinese business community and funds raised by the Chinese working-class public. Not a cent was received from the British colonial government, and this meant that the university was also not recognized by the British and existed primarily as a private company (Kee and Choi 2013). The British were dead set against Nanyang University because they were convinced that since it was a Chinese-medium institution it was a communal enterprise that went against the cosmopolitan aspiration of a Malayan identity that the colonial government was trying to foster.

Yet, studies have shown that Nanyang University offered an equally compelling and competing form of Malayan identity and culture that was built on what was called the “nanyang” aesthetic. In this instance, “nanyang” can be loosely defined as a cultural hybridity that combined Eastern and Western cultural forms while synthesizing these aesthetic traditions to address local subject matter and social conditions (Low 2012, 237).

If the university was founded in a context where “nanyang” as an aesthetic principle was debated, one could argue that the building of the university constituted a form of creative dissent against the colonial status quo in the primacy of Anglophone culture within Malayan’s multiethnic social compact. What the dissent suggests is that the ideological contestation between Nanyang University and University of Malaya was not exclusively marked by divisions along language lines. On this point, it is important to note that I am referring primarily to the founding visions of the two universities and not the inter-varsity camaraderie amongst students. The choice of which language to use as the primary medium of instruction also became a debate about which language community would gain new privileges from the university as an institution that validated an individual’s knowledge on an area of study. Even so, when it comes to a language community, though the basis of the community’s identity is a shared language, the community is not wholly defined by it and allows for different kinds of accommodation. At the same time, while the building of Nanyang University received tremendous support from the Chinese community, significant contributions also came from Chinese business leaders. These acts of generosity suggest that the competition had in many ways to do with the values that would strengthen the class positions of either the Anglophones or the Chinese business community. These values were to be imparted to future politicians, technocrats, teachers, and officials in the institutions that were set up.

Given the context spelled out above, Nanyang fought hard against the public perception that it only had Chinese communal interests at heart. At the same time, it needed to find a new ground on which it could offer a different cosmopolitan worldview. When the author and physician Han Suyin was invited by the first vice-chancellor of Nanyang University to teach English literature, she rejected the offer. When she was asked, she “shook my head. I did not know anything about English literature.”

“But you write English,” the vice-chancellor exclaimed.

“Not English literature,” Han replied. “I did not want to teach Dickens and Thackeray, worthy though they might be” (Han 1980, 90).

Instead, Han wanted to put together something else altogether. Han elaborated on this point: “I tried to explain my idea of literature; that we must create an Asian type of literature; we needed something other than nineteenth-century English writers . . .” (ibid.).

Finally, by 1959, Han was able to teach a three-month course titled “Contemporary Asian Literature.” She taught at night, twice a week, for two hours. In the course, she was able to introduce students to Asian literature translated into English. The writers covered included Rabindranath Tagore, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Chinua Achebe, and Ahmed Ali. They were studied in the context of literary outputs emerging “from colonialism” (Aamer Hussein 2017).

By distancing the idea of literature from the English literary canon, what Han proposed was that the constitution of what she called “Asian literature” need not be language-specific but have a shared common condition. The fact that literary texts for the courses were either written in or translated into the English language also suggests that in claiming ownership over the English language, one decolonizes the language of colonial oppression by using that very same language to communicate one’s individual experience across other contexts in the community that one imagines to be “Asia.”

In arguing that there was a creative dimension to the founding of a pedagogical institution in Nanyang University, I am also suggesting that the institution was in no way a communal and reactionary response to the cosmopolitan Malayan cultural identity that University of Malaya was attempting to foster. If anything, it offered a contending cosmopolitan vision of a Malayan identity. A cosmopolitan Malayan identity was not the sole purchase of an Anglophone elite who viewed every other language community as communal and insular. Here was an institution of higher learning that took a creative role in nurturing a different imagination of Malaysia.

Nevertheless, university education in the post-independence period focused primarily on nation building. In this sense, administrative control was gradually centralized, often at the expense of the university’s autonomy. Following the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, Nanyang University was administratively merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore (Tan and Lee 1996). This followed from the taming of the university and the expulsion of leftist elements during the 1963 Operation Coldstore, when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew embarked on a leftist purge in order to consolidate power over the island state to demonstrate his political mandate to the federal government of Malaysia as the date of the merger inched closer (Poh et al. 2013). In 1970s Malaysia, following the racial riots of May 13, 1969, the government introduced a law that would curtail student involvement in party politics (Universities and University Colleges Act 1971).

Under Section 5 of the 1971 Act, the establishment of universities outside of the government purview was prohibited. Were such a stipulation in place in 1955, Nanyang University would not have been established. While the 1971 Act was designed to police the spread of extremist ideologies within academic institutions, once the act was in place it allowed the state to wield a great degree of control over a system of learning and define its values. By 1974, university students mobilized to highlight the destitution of rubber tappers in Baling, Kedah, following a slump in rubber prices. They saw the cause of poverty in a system of labor exploitation as a symptom of an unequal distribution of wealth. In turn, university students accused the Malaysian government of protecting the economic interests of British investors by safeguarding their ownership of plantation estates in spite of Malaysia’s political independence while neglecting to care for the welfare of its citizens.

To stamp out the belligerent student body, the Internal Security Act, a preventive detention law passed in 1960 that allowed for detention without trial or criminal charges under legally defined circumstances, was invoked to arrest a number of student leaders involved in the Baling peasant protests. Soon after, the 1971 Act was further strengthened through a revision to ensure that what appeared to be the most vocal political demographic stayed silent.

The redistributive system known as the New Economic Policy, which was introduced in 1971, allowed for some form of social reconfiguration to take place just as the economy and education were slowly being centralized. The policy of centralization extended also into the realm of culture, with the formulation of a National Cultural Policy the same year. The National Cultural Policy was the outcome of a series of deliberations known as the National Cultural Congress, whose scope was to orient culture toward an expression of nativism. The first feature of this policy was that the concept of a National Culture would be based on cultures local to the region. Second, non-Malay cultural forms would be included as part of National Culture if they were suitable. Last, Islam—as the official religion of the country—was recognized as an important component in shaping National Culture.

This suggests that by the end of the 1970s, the nation—or the national as a discourse—had concretized into a set of characteristics and policies that represented the government. For activists and artists who were suspicious of the political and cultural agenda behind such instrumentalization of culture, they would have to draw strength and imagination from elsewhere. It would take a while for this new culture to crystallize into an output, given that by the 1980s, when Mahathir Mohamad became the fourth prime minister of Malaysia, he instituted a sweeping modernization program and numerous campaigns aimed at reinventing the cultural framework, culminating in the concept of Bangsa Malaysia. This was a framework that would allow a new economic model to emerge, based on the desire to foster a corporate class of political allies through privatization of key government assets and agencies.

These socioeconomic changes produced a growing middle class that was silenced by the wealth and opportunity in Malaysia. On the other hand, they also created small pockets of resistance to what was perceived to be a misdirected vision of modernity. This perception resulted in nascent attempts at thinking of an educational curriculum that privileged creative expression as a channel for social justice. It also recognized in pedagogy a means to redirect the public’s sympathy to social issues that were not immediately relevant to the urban middle class. By the 1990s, the state was seen to have monopolized the definition of nationalism. The countermove was therefore not to produce an alternative national vision, but to cultivate a relationship with the world that was not always aligned to the present-day narrative of the nation-state. Attempts were made to bring into awareness historical alignments and the unrealized ideals that had been promised. By the early 1990s, in a small private art school called the Malaysian Art Institute, a course titled “Third World Aesthetics” was being taught by the artist Wong Hoy Cheong (Soon 2014, 90).

Wong, who returned from the United States in the mid-1980s, had studied painting under John Grillo and was also a student of the abstract painter Hans Hoffman, known for his theory on the push-and-pull effect. Departing from Renaissance one-point linear perspective, Hoffman argued that the compositional push-and-pull of form produced a visual tension that evoked in the viewer an experience of depth and motion on the flat surface of a canvas.

Even though Wong later abandoned painting to experiment with other media, he did not entirely dispense with the push-and-pull approach. As a conceptual tool, the very tension evoked in the visualization of the push-and-pull corresponds philosophically to dialectics as a mode of discourse. What is achieved through the use of contrasts and opposites is a psychological depth that can speak forcefully as a response to the conditions of contemporary life. In this sense, Wong was also taken by the hermeneutics of the German philosopher Hans Georg-Gadamar, especially with what he called the fusion of horizons as central to the act of interpretation. Understanding emerges through the act of reading, not in order for an objective meaning to surface. Instead, the interpreter gains a deeper empathy for the subject matter through the production of a common horizon.

When offering a working definition of contemporary art, Wong spoke as early as 1989, in a seminar paper, of the need to unyoke artistic practice from a mannered understanding of tradition. At the First ASEAN Symposium on Aesthetics, he rejected the prevalent tendency of cultural essentialism that he saw in many contemporary artists who engaged rhetorically with tradition. Instead, he said:

We need more of the present, more empathy for the living and breathing people of our society. We need to confront the fabric of everyday life and not be tangled in the cobwebs of the past. As it is, we have enough myths and legends, pucuk rebungs, dragons and phoenixes, batik motifs and wayang kulit. (Wong 1989, 122–123)

To counter the tendency to mythologize the past, Wong asked for a renewed sensitivity to the new denizens of everyday spaces. He argued:

The anonymous singers in Karaoke lounges, the medicine men and prostitutes in the backlanes of Chow Kit, Mat Rocks and heavy-metal music, the squatters of Sungai Way, the computer salesman, the bank auditor, the travel agent—they too make up our culture. (ibid.)

These questions would be asked and solutions would be sought through the Third World aesthetics course that Wong taught. The course was influenced in part by Paolo Freire’s idea of conscientização, according to which the purpose of learning is centered on a practice of consciousness raising that he calls “reading the world.” This engages learners through a process of questioning the nature of their historical and social situation. Augusto Boal’s concept of a theater of the oppressed was also influential in shaping Wong’s artistic practice. Wong notes:

I was interested in asking: is there such a thing as third-world aesthetics? I used the class as an arena to think through some of these ideas together with students. But I stopped teaching it after a few years because I came to realize that often there’s a thin line between third-world nationalism and fascism and authoritarianism, and that while meant to be liberating, “third-world aesthetics” also had a strong nationalist agenda to it that could easily be co-opted. These different relations are all so slippery. (Merckle 2011a)

Wong taught the course for about three years, during which classes often became arenas for him to explore ideas of transformation, pedagogy, and even more complex issues such as consciousness raising or conscientização. Rather than offering a blanket solution, Wong explains what consciousness raising entails with a question that calls for a flexibility of approaches: “How do you make students conscious of themselves and acquire a reflexivity about themselves, their environments and the societies in which they live?” (Merckle 2011b).

Collected texts that were disseminated and taught in Wong’s classes included those by Lefhanded (Malaysia), Caravan and Caribou (Thailand), and Iwan Fals (Indonesia) on music; Moelyono (Indonesia) and Black Artists of Asia (Philippines) on art; Emha Ainun Nadjib (Indonesia), PETA (Philippines), and Maya (Thailand) on theater and performance; and Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia) and other Filipino writers on writing (Wong 2013).

Freire also became a central point to examine how channels of communication were central to cultural studies in a conference organized by the Communications Program at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, in 1993 titled “Communication and Development in a Postmodern Era: Re-evaluating the Freirian Legacy.” The purpose was to apply Freire’s cultural strategies to the field of communication studies in Southeast Asia. Zaharom Nain, the conference co-convenor, noted:

the focus of the Conference will be on examining feasible and progressive alternatives. Alternative communication and cultural strategies, especially, which have emerged and developed in different sociocultural contexts in response—and even in opposition—to dominant, mainstream discourses imposed on these societies. (Zaharom Nain 1993, 1)

Freire in a published foreword expressed dismay that postmodernity commonly understood as relativism produced a historical province of a “round time,” which in its neutrality was “almost without continuity with what went before and what is to come; without ideologies, utopias, dreams, social classes or struggles” (Freire 1993). This sensibility of the world was in essence a “denial of History itself,” according to Freire. Instead, he called for a progressively postmodern educational practice that was

based on democratic respect for the learner as one of the subjects of the process. It treats teaching-learning as an inquisitive and creative moment when educators recognise and reform knowledge previously known and when learners grasp and reproduce what was previously unknown. . . . It is one that humbly learns from differences and rejects arrogance. (ibid., 3)

If by the early 1990s artists and educators still felt that there were redeeming features in existing pedagogical institutions, the political frustration that built up into the 1998 Reformasi movement, following the sacking of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, shattered this illusion. A mass movement cohered around the theme of Reformasi, or reformation. The expressed purpose was to call for the resignation of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and put an end to the culture of corruption and cronyism that was rampant under the UMNO-led government, which had had uninterrupted rule of the country since Malaya’s independence in 1957. The call to arms, coupled with the Asian financial crisis, created a kind of rupture in societal values.

What this rupture entailed was a quest for alternative forms of engagement, which also meant effecting change outside formal institutions of learning by creating pedagogical structures that addressed some of the goals and objectives raised by Freire in the passage above. Since 1998 Bangsar Utama has been a place for student activists from various campuses in Kuala Lumpur to hang out and discuss progressive theories, current affairs, and issues. These informal discussions over teh tarik in mamak stalls translated into a decision to rent a space in Bangsar Utama in April 2000 to carry out community-based programs and activities. The collective was known as Universiti Bangsar Utama (UBU) and had Hishamuddin Rais, a student activist who had returned from years of exile following the clampdown on the Baling protest of 1974, self-appointed as principal lecturer. UBU was cheekily described by Hishamuddin as “you be you,” perhaps a call to discover one’s individual self that was free from the pressures of cultural conformism (Krich 2015).

The neighborhood of Bangsar is known for its affluence. In fact, in the retail and residential district of the nearby area known as Bangsar Baru, clubs and bars are regular watering holes and hangouts for well-to-do Malaysians. Bangsar is also a neighborhood of constrasts. In Bangsar Utama, residents live mostly in two large public housing apartment buildings—the Seri Pahang flats and the KTM workers flats. University of Malaya is located a short five-minute drive away. University students are drawn to Bangsar Utama for its cheap rent and cheap entertainment. But by virtue of being in close proximity to low-income residents of the area, students decided that to reeducate themselves they also needed to understand the work of education within the community they were located in.

UBU’s education programs were divided into three categories. First, UBU directly addressed the needs of the community in Bangsar Utama. This meant English, mathematics, art, theater, and music classes for secondary school students. It also organized camping trips, visits to art galleries and museums, as well as other activities for youths in the neighborhood. Second, the programs addressed university students in the Klang Valley, a common name for the Greater Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area. Activities included organizing monthly panel discussions, weekly discussion groups on social issues, weekly film screenings, as well as workshops focusing on democracy and human rights. This was to form a network of politically aware students across different universities. Lastly, activities were organized also for the public, which included street theater and agitprop performances as well as musical events.

Even as the seeds of imagination were sown, UBU remained successful—but solely as an organization that grew because it was located in Kuala Lumpur. It never developed a significant structural virality. One explanation could be that UBU was still by and large driven by the charisma of Hishamuddin. Hishamuddin’s personality has arguably outshone many of his acolytes’ and apprentices’, even if a number of them managed to hive off. It would seem that the cult of personality parallels the current public fascination with Zunar and Fahmi, not in terms of what they actually do but as vaguely conceived figures of rebellion against an autocratic system of government. The solution to this cult of personality would not arrive for another 10 years, in which the virality of an opposition movement would spread like the weeds that Mahathir tried to stamp out through his 1987 Operation Lalang. Like all weeds, they grow in all directions and appear to be irradicable.


In 1994 Wong presented a performance/installation titled Lalang at the Creative Centre of the National Art Gallery, then located in the former Majestic Hotel. The work was part of a group exhibition with Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Raja Shahriman titled Warbox, Lalang, Killing Tools. In this multi-part work, realized over several days, Wong planted a type of weedy grass called lalang (Imperata cylindrica) in a flower bed reminiscent of a European garden (Langenbach 1994). He then sprayed weedkiller, cut and burned the dead lalang, dug out the roots, and replaced it with cowgrass, restoring the site to its original state. It was an ironic statement performed as a trenchant critique of the stifling space that shaped Malaysian society as well as the kind of creativity it purported to sustain and support but also kept in check and smothered. The entire event was laced with a morbid dose of pessimism. In fact, Wong commented on this phenomenon the year before:

“The majority of young artists would find no awkward contradictions between rebellion and a need for the support of the dominant art institution. But I see this as a development of a parasitic culture . . . you are critical of the power structures and yet you are dependent on these very powers to legitimise and evaluate the worthiness of your work.” (Jit 1993, 8)

Lalang therefore did not only refer to the 1987 political detention known as Operation Lalang, when Mahathir Mohamad’s status quo in UMNO was under threat, but as a metaphor it also spoke for a desired structural transformation that required creative practitioners and educators to embody a practice based on the concept of the rhizome. The rhizome as a concept was featured prominently in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1983) and draws on the idea that in botany the rhizome is a subterranean plant-stem with a mass of roots that grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. For Deleuze and Guattari, the rhizome is an “image of thought” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 129) that suggests a network model that is horizontal in nature rather than “arborescent” or tree-like—which denotes hierarchy and a top-down relationship.

In a sense, the concept of the rhizome offers an imagery for the unpredictable and untameable manner in which ideas circulate and spread within a social space, like the weeds or lalang in Wong’s performance. Wong’s performance ended on a wryly pessimistic note with the weeding of the garden patch and the planting of cowgrass, using the metaphor of gardening to comment on the state’s effort to clear away the uncontrollable movement of ideas and replace it with a homogenous value system.

But weeds—like ideas—never really die; they simply bide their time. In October 2011, a group of students at UiTM (Universiti Institut Teknologi MARA) started organizing gatherings under the banner Buku Jalanan (Streetside books). The format was simple: they would set up a temporary library at the Shah Alam Lake Park one evening every fortnight. The setup normally consisted of a bookshelf filled with books brought over by members of the collective. Woven mats and picnic cloths were laid out on the grass. The setup would be inviting enough for the public who were in the park to stop by and browse through the selection on offer. Typically the books covered a whole range of genres: history, literature, philosophy, economics, sociology. No longer were there attempts to contain the range of materials to “local” history, although in describing the international, there was a keen interest to explore regions and localities beyond Europe or America. Books could also be borrowed. But principally, the books acted as a conversation starter. Lasting roughly two hours, each session often included a discussion on a particular topic.

The founders were Zikri Rahman, Azrie Ahmad, and Ihsan Hassan, none of whom were from the fine arts faculty at the university. What was considered fine art was very much shaped by a desire to define the artist principally as a creative entrepreneur whose prestige was measured through his or her ability to secure gallery representation, produce works for exhibitions, and receive financial validation from local collectors through the sales of artworks. By 2011, buoyed by a robust commercial market, fine arts graduates from UiTM came to see the criteria spelled out above as a career trajectory. The result was that the works produced were primarily easel-based, or fitted to the demands of the white cube. These included installation, multimedia projection, and sculpture.

Members of Buku Jalanan were instead primarily interested in reading. But what was interesting about Buku Jalanan was not how it conducted its gatherings. After all, these were tried and tested methods we have seen in the setting up of Universiti Bangsar Utama. What was interesting was how modular and adaptable the format was. Buku Jalanan is truly modular, in that each chapter in different townships and areas has its own ways of determining the scope of its intellectual engagement. Today the organization has at least 60 active chapters all over Malaysia—in all major townships, including in East Malaysia. It also has chapters overseas, in at least 10 countries where Malaysian studies can be found—from India to Germany, from Ireland to South Korea—and in city-specific chapters from Cardiff to Melbourne. Never has a ground-up initiative achieved this level of national and transnational coverage. In fact, it was flagged as potentially dangerous in leaked slides from a 2015 teaching module prepared by the government’s Biro Tatanegara (BTN), or the National Civics Bureau, an agency tasked with nurturing the spirit of patriotism and aligning this with the nation’s development efforts. BTN fulfilled its objective by organizing courses that civil servants as well as government scholarship holders are required to attend.

In one of the courses organized a few years ago, BTN put together a presentation on “indie” culture to newly recruited scholarship holders who were about to embark on their university education overseas. The presentation offered stern warnings about the dangers of alternative thinking and listed groups and initiatives that BTN deemed to be “countercultural” (Zikri Rahman and Faisal Mustafa 2015). Many such movements were connected to the increasingly robust Malay-language publishing scene, which began posing a challenge to Malay cultural norms since, unlike the English language, the Malay language not only had great symbolic purchase as the national language, but it also had a political reach that extended to a huge demographic.

What is significant about Buku Jalanan is that unlike earlier activities that were centered in the capital city, it successfully designed a local platform for creative dissent that was rhizomatic in character. Until today, it has no official leader. Each chapter operates autonomously, and networks are formed informally. Chapters hive off from existing chapters, like the rhizome’s tubular roots that spread outward and in all directions. What this ultimately does is to unmake the very parameters of what a national discourse could be. For example, Buku Jalanan was featured in an exhibition in Jakarta, and through that exhibition connections were forged with Indonesian organizations that shared similar pedagogical goals of being alternative. Outside of the government-sanctioned overseas Malaysian student platforms funded by UMNO, Buku Jalanan has become a counter organization through which open discourse is encouraged (Zikri Rahman 2017).

Ultimately, though, what it does is to enable a new class of politically aware students to be connected to each other—an imagined community, so to speak, not of nation but of books and shared political sympathy. Speaking of her time as a student in Shah Alam, the activist and filmmaker as well as early member of Buku Jalanan Maryam Lee reflected on how formative the collective in Shah Alam was to her own development of a critical consciousness (Lee et al. 2015). She also noted that when one assumed that political awareness came primarily from students who studied overseas—because of the heavy surveillance in local public universities—there was a tendency to disregard the role that local university students played in fostering greater political awareness among Malaysia’s youths. Such dynamism, not seen since the Merdeka period, highlights a groundswell of activities aimed at the possibility of creating, in creative and dissenting terms, pedagogical counter-sites to the university.

In this instance, the form of organization, its mode of operation, is the substance. Like the horizontal spread and growth that characterizes the rhizome, Buku Jalanan’s raison d’etre was premised on a completely different idea of pedagogy in comparison to the university. Unlike the university and state-run institutions where education is measured through a metricization of learning outcomes, learning happens through encounters. As such, its modus operandi is the setting up of infrastructure that facilitates encounter and allows for the virality of ideas. Unlike the modern nation-state, Buku Jalanan’s pedagogical aim is not to inculcate values and ideals that create a cohesive society; rather, it takes the possibility of dissent as the very unit to build up a network system that allows different ideas to circulate. Buku Jalanan takes up minimal space, resources, and time. By the end of the two hours, the books, the shelves, the mats are all packed up. The lake gardens seem to return to what they were before. And yet, something has changed.

Beyond Chicken and Egg

The interplay between creativity and dissent is ongoing. The view that political crises give rise to some of the most interesting artistic expressions has been taken as the stock narrative of twentieth-century avant-garde art. What is seldom explored is the underlying systemic change in thinking that has resulted in dissenting forms of creative expression. This has to do with our attitude toward pedagogy and experimentation in which knowledge can be shared. Even if we speak of the emergence of a critical mass and the iconicity of rebellious figures in the limelight, sometimes it is worth reminding ourselves of anecdotes from the margins. One could think of these anecdotes as allegories that shed light on the two-pronged approach that many of the creative projects, discussed in this essay, adopted. The approach is premised on a critique on the institutionalization of education and a belief in the outlier local cosmopolitan as a symbol of self-learning.

The first anecdote concerns a performance titled Zone by the American-born performance artist Ray Langenbach, who has made Malaysia his home since the late-1980s. Zone was performed at the 1993 conference on Freirean legacy in the postmodern age discussed above. It features three teenagers, in secondary school uniform, representing the Malay, Chinese, and Indian configuration of Malaysia’s multiracial identity discourse. The schoolchildren were provided with a passage from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed: all they had to do was recite the text in front of a group of scholars from all over the world to deliberate on Freirean strategies in relation to communication studies. In addition, each of the schoolchildren held a hen in their arms, and an egg was placed in front of the hens. As the text was recited, the hens slowly pecked away at the eggs. The performance artist and archivist Loo Zihan suggests:

It stems from Ray’s research that eggshells contain potassium and the hens will do that if they are hungry. So he thought it made an interesting image . . . children regurgitating information fed to them to those who provided them with the information and the adults killing and eating their young. (Loo 2017)

Zone was a reminder of the destructive cycle of pedagogical institutionalization that can take place even when the Freirean legacy is institutionalized. Much like how modern art is absorbed and normalized into an expanded art historical canon, the modern politics of pedagogy can become ossified into mere ideological ceremonies. For avant-garde artists, the new challenge is to find a new modus operandi so that the visual is no longer prioritized as the site of political resistance. A convergence in this sense occurs when the creativity in dissent transforms the politics of pedagogy into an art of pedagogy. What the latter prioritizes stems from a desire to change the terms in which knowledge is produced and shared. This in turn speaks to a whole class of people who are not privy to the opportunities offered by a formal education and yet display an equal measure of curiosity.

I end my reflection with a personal encounter, since this interaction returns the story to an individual because all work of mental cultivation is ultimately solitary. This example highlights the work that is done away from the media spotlight and speaks of a much more complex condition that is shaping the curiosity of youths in Malaysia. The account offers a counterpoint to the image of the rebel that the media has simplified. On one of my recent trips to Kota Bahru in Kelantan, Zaidi, who was introduced to me by Zikri Rahman, one of the founders of Buku Jalanan, was kind enough to take me for a spin around town on my last night on his motorbike. Along the way he spoke of a different city, one whose youths were mired in drugs, alienation, and a lack of desire for self-improvement. This was a generation where a university paper qualification promised an office job that never came, where high school graduates could not read, where religious rectitude simply became outward political ceremonies that masked the hidden cost of “progress.”

For Zaidi, the 1990s generation under Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS, Malaysian Islamic Party) was sudah hancur—already destroyed. Social gains and desires under an Islamic flag had split the population into a clique of haves, who had risen up the ranks through political favors and connections, and the have-nots, who had turned into roaming zombies hooked on pil kuda (a type of methamphetamine drug) for RM15 a pop. For Zaidi, a love of berniaga (business), which he attributed to Kelantanese culture, had brought him here to set up his online book dealership.

This was after saving up from years of working in factories in the Klang Valley. The lack of an overseas education (or any tertiary education for that matter) did not reduce his love for books, which he sourced from around Malaysia and Indonesia. Today he is even an independent book publisher, and his activity of consciousness raising does not occur in a university setting but on the streets, in the marketplace, every Friday morning before prayers, when he sets up a stall behind the PAS headquarters and peddles books on literature, radical politics, and Kelantanese history.

Zaidi was ready to help me with my research into a self-taught Kelantanese cultural historian by the name of Abdullah bin Mohamed, and I had a feeling he was perhaps the only one who had an inkling of what I wanted to recover. But that is because I think we share a conviction that the figure of the cosmopolitan is not just one who is privileged with an overseas education or reads/speaks the English language, but one who can inimitably fashion the world from their locale, no matter where they may reside or what station in life they come from (Foo 2009, 7–8). After all, this is an attitude to learning, not a privilege. And what other chance do we have in a society defined largely by material status, wants, and needs?

Accepted: June 29, 2018


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