Skip to content

Do You Hear The People Sing? State-Society Relations in Southeast Asia II

1530–1700, Saturday 16 April 2016, L6

Claudio Sopranzetti
University of Oxford

List of Papers:

  • Paper 1: Fatwa Institutions in Malaysia and Singapore: Balancing State and Society
  • Paper 2: The Trees Movement in Vietnam: walking on the wild side or walking on the right side?
  • Paper 3: Resisting the Dragon? Typological Analysis of Southeast Asian Local Resistance to China’s Purposeful Aid Diplomacy

Paper 1: Fatwa Institution in Singapore: A peculiar part of state body

Afif Pasuni
University of Warwick

Discussions of the nature of the secular state in Southeast Asia commonly depict the state as a secular authoritarian entity which controls the cultural, legal and civil domains. Religious agendas linked to the state are suspiciously viewed as mere nation-building tools and political projects of the authoritarian state. However this assumption tends to dismiss the role of religious entities within the state and society. In this paper, I will focus especially on religious bureaucrats working within the state. More specifically, I will examine state and societal relations from the standpoint of national fatwa institutions (FI) in Singapore, and how they navigate between state authority and societal expectations.

Although initially formed by the state to regulate the issuing of religious edicts, I argue that FIs are massively influential yet vastly underrated; as a body that ‘Islamises’ and advances its own unique objectives, they possess the capacity to affect both state policies and societal observances. Unlike conventional Islamist entities which promote ‘Islamisation’ mainly through political confrontation (think of the Turkish AKP, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or Malaysian PAS), FIs display post-Islamist tendencies that encourage religiosity by readily working with the state while gradually expanding their functions in state bureaucracy.

To substantiate these claims, I will look at two instances of fatwa-making. The first one is the FI’s position on birth control, especially in the context of the state’s controversial population planning programme. The second one is related to organ transplant, which significantly impacted state policy – an anomaly in a country like Singapore. Drawing on these examples, I will demonstrate that FIs are not merely religious bureaucrats, but are political and social actors in their own right pursuing ‘quietist political activism’.

Paper 2: The Trees Movement in Vietnam: walking on the wild side or walking on the right side?

Ngoc Anh Vu
University of Bath

There are increasing signs that the space for civil society action is slowly opening up in Vietnam. Although the literature on this is still in its infancy, it is clear that one of the reasons for this change in civil society action is related to the fact that Vietnam is repositioning itself in the global political economy. It is also clear that certain types of civil society action are more permitted than others, with NGO action in particular being favoured. This has meant that the analysis of civil society action to date is very much NGO centred.

With this paper, I will make a distinctive contribution by focusing on a very recent and relatively high-profile case of civil society action in Vietnam which is not centred on NGO action. The focus of my paper is the Trees movement in Hanoi, a broad-based citizen led movement established to protest against Hanoi government’s decision to chop down century old trees which lines the streets of Hanoi. This decision triggered an unexpected citizen response which includes different sectors of society and involves both registered NGOs and informal/unregistered groups. It is not a politically motivated or led group but a ‘civil’ one in the sense that it is led by citizens. The movement has slowly evolved into a campaign which demands that people be consulted in decisions that directly affect their lives.

There is a real dearth of literature on the rapidly changing state-society relations in Vietnam. The case of the Trees Movement will help shed light on these evolving relations, and will explore the room for manouevre open to citizens wishing to confront a state which has an uncertain and unpredictable level of political tolerance. The case will therefore also be able to inform our understanding of broader civil society action in Vietnam.


Paper 3: Resisting the Dragon? Typological Analysis of Southeast Asian Local Resistance to China’s Purposeful Aid Diplomacy

Hao Yang
Naional Chengchi University

The geo-political and geo-economic landscape of Southeast Asia has been altered by the rise of China and its newly developed “One-Belt-One-Road” strategy. As China is increasing its foreign assistance and foreign investment in Southeast Asia countries, there are increasing local resistance against Beijing’s Purposeful Aid Diplomacy (PAD). These movements are targeting against either Southeast Asian governments or Chinese SOEs, ranging from cultural resistance (soft), blockade, protest, anti-China movement, to severe armed conflict (hard). This paper argues that resisting China is not fighting against the country per se, but expressing the free will to counter balance the intrusive influence to local order and social stability. Based upon the author’s fieldworks in Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and the Philippines, it is aimed at exploring the rationale of Southeast Asian local resistance, and representing the typologies of social movements against PAD.