Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow

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By Meredith Weiss

This work traces the early rise and subsequent decline of politically effective student activism in Malaysia. During the 1970s, the state embarked on a project of "intellectual containment" that both suppressed ongoing mobilization of university students and delegitimized further activism. That project has been notably successful in curbing student protest, erasing a legacy of past engagement, and stemming the production of potentially subversive new ideas. Innovative student proposals for reform that were once sanctioned and even welcomed (within bounds) are now illicit and discouraged, reflecting not only changes in Malaysia's political regime, but changes in the political cultural overall. This incisive study sheds new light on the dynamics of mobilization and on the key role of students and universities in postcolonial political development.

The research - based on sources that include interviews with dozens of past and present student activists, decades' worth of campus publications and other media, print and oral history archives, government reports, and autobiographies as well as other firsthand accounts - traces the intertwining paths of higher education and student activism, from the start of tertiary education in early twentieth-century Singapore and extending to present-day Malaysia. This in-depth study calls into question the conventional wisdom that Malaysian students - and Malaysians overall - have become "apathetic." That apparent disinterest is not inevitable or natural, but is, the book argues, the outcome of a systematic, sustained project of pacification and depoliticization by a moderately illiberal, ambitiously developmental state.


"...a magisterial effort in providing a historical, piolitical and social analysis of the Malaysian (and Malayan) student movements and activism over the last century, condensing the multiple strands of activists and their projects and of course making the endeavour readable. Weiss has managed to weave interview data, archival records and newspaper reports into a coherent history of student activism. Weiss's storytelling is at its best when she tells people's stories." - Gerhard Hoffstaedter

"...fills a critical gap in Malaysian history, and offers a useful approach to understand similar movements in Southeast Asia Readers interested in Malaysian and Southeast Asian studies, as well as social movements, will be indepted to her theoretically informed and historically expansive treatment of student political activism in Malaysia." - Cheong Soon Gan

“In addition to being very well composed, Student Activism in Malaysia fills a void in research on activism and civil society in Malaysia” - Julian Lee

“While the sheer density of the story Weiss has to tell may be daunting to non-specialists, her prose is sharp and the book has a clear utility for anyone wishing to gain a better understanding of Malaysian educational institutions, the shifting subjectivity of ‘the student’, and some general appreciation of the wider forces at work in the formation of post-independence Malaysia.” - Richard Baxstrom


Meredith Weiss is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on issues of political mobilization and change, civil society, human rights, and collective identity in Southeast Asia.


Publication Year: 2012
316 pages, 229mm x 153mm
ISBN: 978-9971-69-598-9, Paperback

NUS Press