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State-Society interactions in Southeast Asia (Forum)

Part I: Roundtable: Saturday 21 March 2015, 0900 – 1100, Lecture Theatre 7
Part II: Elective sessions
Part III: Workshop: Saturday 21 March 2015, 1400 – 1600, Lecture Theatre 7
Part IV: Elective sessions

Vivienne Wee
Association of Women for Action and Research

Phyllis Ferguson
University of Oxford

Kirsten McConnachie
University of Oxford

Claudio Sopranzetti
University of Oxford

State-society interactions are crucial to democratisation. In the context of such interactions, civil society emerges as a force that can shape public opinion and monitor public authority. These activities are located in a public sphere where state authority is publicly monitored by citizens, rather than a public sphere where state power is displayed to citizens. As analysed by Habermas (1962), this structural transformation of the public sphere marks the difference between absolute monarchy and a modern democracy. However, has this transformation occurred in Southeast Asia? And if not, how can this transformation be facilitated?

This forum addresses this question in Southeast Asia, examining the factors that either enable or inhibit the democratisation of the public sphere. It brings together practitioners and academics to discuss how civil society can work more effectively and collaboratively, and how it can forge a partnership with the state to better influence policymaking and implementation. It will discuss how state-society interactions can lead to a more democratised political system, whereby decision-making is decentralised to multiple levels, instead of being concentrated within a ruling elite, and where public feedback has a concrete impact on policy formation.

In particular, women’s role as active citizens is crucial, as their presence and actions in the public sphere demolish the gendered divide between public and private spheres. Immobilising half the population in the private sphere as subordinates who are less than full citizens is a strategy for maintaining a polity that cannot be democratised because half the citizenry are not fully enfranchised.

A designated rapporteur will report on the findings of the workshop. The workshop also aims to facilitate a cross-border network of civil society activists interested in democratising state-society interactions and in sharing strategies.

After the roundtable and the workshop, participants have the option of participating in the other sessions of the Symposium which are relevant to their interests.


The workshop has two parts:


Roundtable Discussion Agenda:

(1) To what extent has the public sphere in certain Southeast Asian countries been transformed from a sphere where state power is displayed TO citizens to a sphere where public authority is publicly monitored BY citizens?
(2) Which factors enable the democratisation of the public sphere?
(3) Which factors inhibit the democratisation of the public sphere?
(4) To what extent do civil society actors propel state-society interactions such that the state comes to derive its legitimacy from being accountable to an informed and organised citizenry?
(5) To what extent are women able to become active citizens in the public sphere?
(6) To what extent is the immobilisation of women in the private sphere helping to maintain a polity that cannot be democratised because half the citizenry are not fully enfranchised?”

Roundtable Panellists:

  • Vivienne Wee (Association of Women for Action and Research)

Dr Vivienne Wee, an anthropologist, is a founding member and currently the Research and Advocacy Director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in Singapore. She taught at the National University of Singapore, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong and SIM University in Singapore. Dr Wee will discuss state-society interactions in Singapore. She will analyse the potential and limits of civil society in a state where one ruling party has held power for 50 years. In this context, she will discuss women’s role as active citizens in transforming the public sphere into a domain where public authority is publicly monitored by the citizenry.

  • Syahredzan Johan (Malaysian Bar Council)

Syahredzan Johan is Chairperson of the National Young Lawyers Committee and Co-Deputy Chairperson of the Constitutional Law Committee of the Malaysian Bar Council. He was admitted as an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya on 5 October 2007, and has been a partner in RamRais & Partners since 2010. He graduated with an LLB (Hons) from the University of Cardiff in 2005.

  • Kelly Gerard (University of Western Australia)

Dr Kelly Gerard’s research and teaching interests span political economy, governance, and social movements in Southeast Asia. Her doctoral research examined the modalities of civil society participation in ASEAN policymaking, following ASEAN’s shift to embrace a ‘people-oriented’ Association. She has since expanded her research on the political economy of regional development into two related areas. “Understanding the Reformed ASEAN” considers the imperatives and implications of ASEAN members’ increased political integration through new agencies and instruments, such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. “Regional Institutions, Development and Legitimacy” is a collaborative project comparing the form and operation of external relations agencies in regional institutions.

  •  Richard Towle (The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

Richard Towle is the Representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. He was previously UNHCR Regional Representative for Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific from 2007 till 2013.  He was also Chief of Mission for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, from 2001 to 2003. Prior to joining the UN, he was a Deputy Chair of the Hong Kong Refugee Status Review Board, after working as a lawyer in New Zealand specializing in refugee and human rights issues.