The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Comparative Speaker Series- Meredith Weiss (SUNY- Albany)

The Roots of Resilience: Party Machines and Grassroots Politics in Southeast Asia

Mon, November 4, 2019 | BAT 5.108

12:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Comparative Speaker Series- Meredith Weiss (SUNY- Albany)

Abstract: The study of regimes is an enterprise fundamentally concerned with the state. We classify regimes most commonly in terms of how a change of government is effected or avoided. Without discounting the importance of these institutional dimensions, I suggest that we can better understand and conceptualize regime persistence, collapse, or reform by looking to the point at which state and society meet: how, where, and when regime actors and challengers insert themselves into or engage with the grassroots. That dimension is especially important in “hybrid,” or electoral authoritarian, regimes—defined usually in terms of meaningful, but flawed, elections, and of which Singapore and Malaysia have been among the most durable and consistent examples in the world. Drawing on extensive field research, supplemented by survey data, government and party documents, local media, and secondary sources, I explore what accounts for the durability of Singapore’s People’s Action Party government and, until 2018, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (National Front) government, as well as what a new government will need to change if political mobilization, competition, governance, and policy access—defining attributes of the political regime—are to shift. I argue that a combination of what amounts to classic machine politics with the structural “assist” of sub-par elections renders electoral authoritarianism extraordinarily and increasingly resilient over time. This robustness is not just because it is hard or unlikely for voters to vote in new leaders, but also because voters' and parties' acculturation to that system over time encourages the opposition, once elected, to end up reproducing rather than subverting key attributes of that same regime.   

Bio: Professor Weiss has held visiting fellowships or professorships also at universities and institutes in Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore, as well as the US, most recently as Visiting Associate Professor in Southeast Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (2013-14). Weiss is the author of Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow (Cornell SEAP/NUS Press, 2011) and Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Stanford, 2006), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters. She has edited or co-edited six books—most recently, The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Malaysia (forthcoming), Electoral Dynamics in Malaysia: Findings from the Grassroots (ISEAS/SIRD, 2013) and Global Homophobia: States, Movements, and the Politics of Oppression (Illinois, 2013). Her research addresses political mobilization and contention, the politics of development, civil society, nationalism and ethnicity, and electoral change in Southeast Asia. Weiss has previously served as chair of the Southeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies and has served in several positions in the American Political Science Association (APSA) and component sections.

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