Civil society and social movements in an ethnically divided society: the case of Malaysia, 1981-2001

Brown, Graham K. (2004) Civil society and social movements in an ethnically divided society: the case of Malaysia, 1981-2001. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis examines the relationship between civil society, social movements and the state in ethnically-divided countries, using the case study of Malaysia. The argument begins with the observation that the respective literatures on civil society and social movements occupy a broadly congruent paradigm, but the relationship between the two is poorly theorised. Through a critical discussion of existing approaches, a synthesis of civil society and social movements theory is produced, which argues for a dualistic interpretation that emphasises both institutional linkages and cultural and discursive relationships. It is further argued that this latter aspect is of particular importance in ethnically-divided countries, as cultural differences between groups may hamper the effective mobilisation of movements. Thus may exist a form of ‘slippage’ between civil society and movement mobilisation, unidentified in much of the literature that tends to view the two as dynamically homogenous.

The empirical section of the thesis utilises this model to examine the trajectories of civil society and social movements in Malaysia, focussing on the two decades from 1981 to 2001. It is argued that the first half of the 1980s saw the expansion of a broadly middle class-led, multiethnic civil society but that successful movement mobilisation nonetheless remained rooted in ethnic concerns. Nonetheless, the decade saw in increasing challenge to the regime's hegemonic position. As internal

relations within the government coalition fractured during the middle years of the decade, parties and factions within the regime lurched to more ethnicist positions, contributing to an increasing spiral of ethnic `outbidding' and social mobilisation. In October 1987, this was brought to an end by a widespread crackdown that brought social mobilisation to an abrupt halt. Combined with the continuing elite fracture, this effectively re-channelled the increased protest of the period into the political sphere, where a broad opposition coalition was formed to contest the 1990 elections. With the democratic system long since undermined, however, the government won and even maintained its two-third majority.

In the late 1990s, the dynamics of state, civil society and social movement were again clearly visible following the dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim as deputy prime minister and the mass protest ‘reformasi’ movement it unleashed. The ‘reformasi’ movement attempted to cultivate new modes of mobilisation, such as the Internet, appropriate to its multiethnic aspirations, but also relied heavily on the existing mobilisational networks of the Islamic movement. This mobilisational bias was reflected in the degree of electoral support for the movement's political manifestation in the 1999 general elections and contributed to the quick demise of the electoral coalition it provoked. The slippage between a multiethnic civil society and the ethnic bases of movement mobilisation in Malaysia has thus hampered the emergence of effective opposition to the regime.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Aldrich, R.J.
Keywords: Civil society, social movements, ethnically divided countries, politics, Malaysia
Subjects: J Political science > JQ Political institutions (Asia, Africa, Australasia, etc.)
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Politics and International Relations
Item ID: 10929
Depositing User: EP, Services
Date Deposited: 06 Oct 2009 16:46
Last Modified: 14 Oct 2017 15:13

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