Cornell University Press

Grassroots Politics in Southeast Asia

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The Roots of Resilience examines governance from the ground up in the world’s two most enduring electoral authoritarian or “hybrid” regimes—Singapore and Malaysia—where politically liberal and authoritarian features are blended to evade substantive democracy. Here’s our Q&A with author Meredith L. Weiss and further insight into her research on issues of political mobilization and change, civil society, human rights, and collective identity in Southeast Asia.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

I never tired of stories from legislators about how hard they worked the ground, and how much their constituents took that labor for granted. Two stories in particular really stand out for me: a long-time ruling-party politician and cabinet minister who got a call from a constituent who had arrived at the airport in Kuala Lumpur for whatever reason and expected his MP—this cabinet minister—to come and pick him up, and a state legislator from the same party, who took the prize for the highest number of weddings attended in a day: she had made it to more than a dozen. (Several legislators groaningly told me, too, that to attend without eating would be rude; one explained how he and his wife would strategize, to have her stay in the car while he popped in for some weddings as he made his weekend rounds since she just couldn’t eat that much!) But the range of household calamities, family crises, etc.—everything from snakes in the garden, to too many mosquitos (in tropical Singapore), to noisy neighbors—that elected legislators are expected to resolve in Malaysia and Singapore both is really astonishing. Across party lines, and however much some of them (not all!) might profit from their position, these public servants work really hard! 

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

First, given how much frenetic revising I needed to do between submission of the manuscript and final publication, I wish I had known that Malaysia’s opposition coalition would win in 2018… and then be ousted anew less than two years later, while the book was in press. That whole saga did more to confirm than contradict my findings but is no less salient for that fact. And second, I really had no idea when I began the project how central local government would be to the research—nor, given how embarrassingly strongly I shared the national-level bias common to the field, how little I knew about the workings of that tier of government. 

3. How do you wish you could change the field of Political Science? 

I would like to see greater and more open recognition for the place of area studies and, especially, historical prospecting and ethnographic field research, in the discipline. The myth that political science, and especially comparative politics, is only accepting now of quantitative research, or that only quantitative (or multi-method or experimental) work contributes to theory-building, is just that—a myth—yet its prevalence is damaging, especially in dissuading newcomers to the discipline from taking up what I consider the most fun, engrossing, and revelation-filled part of the enterprise. 

Meredith Weiss is Professor and Chair of Political Science in the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her research focuses on social mobilization and civil society, collective identity, elections, and subnational governance in Southeast Asia. Her previous books include Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Stanford) and Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow (Cornell SEAP), as well as eleven edited or co-edited volumes—most recently, The Political Logics of Anticorruption Efforts in Asia (SUNY) and Toward a New Malaysia? The 2018 Election and Its Aftermath (NUS). 

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