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Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow

Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow
Meredith L. Weiss
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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 culture 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.

This analysis is based on extensive research, including interviews with dozens of past and present student activists and a close study of historical archives, government reports, firsthand accounts, and student publications extending over decades. Student Activism in Malaysia traces how higher education and student activism have developed and interacted, beginning with the start of tertiary education in early twentieth-century Singapore and extending to present-day Malaysia. In the process, Weiss calls into question the conventional wisdom that Malaysian students—and Malaysians overall—have become “apathetic.” The author demonstrates that this apparent state of apathy is not inevitable, cultural, or natural, but is the outcome of a sustained project of pacification and depoliticization carried out by an ambitiously developmental state.


"Because cohorts of university students come and go, their experiences and memories are readily lost to history. This loss is especially acute when the state seeks to constrain student political life, as it has in Malaysia. Meredith Weiss’s book works against such generational amnesia and intellectual containment by analyzing the issues and struggles that have concerned Malaysia’s student activists over the last fifty years. She examines the myriad forces that have made Malaysian campuses places of both political ferment and apathy. This work not only reclaims the history of student activism in Malaysia, it illuminates how university students perform a peculiar and vital social function internationally."—Thomas Williamson, Department of Anthropology, St. Olaf College 

"The wisdom and the depth of Meredith Weiss's analysis in this book reveals that she definitely has a fine and sharp understanding of not only the broad strokes of Malaysian politics, but also the minute details of its pulsating nuances. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of Malaysian student activism and the forces that have tried to suppress it, as well as the history of student activism around the world."—Shamsul A. B., Distinguished Professor, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

What the reviewers are saying

"Weiss succeeds in painting a quite comprehensive picture of student activism over a lengthy time frame, even though government repression has meant that the resources available [are hard to access] … [the book] fills a void in research on activism and civil society in Malaysia. … It should be of interest to anyone seeking to understand the student and academic cultures of Malaysia’s universities …"—Julian C.H. Lee, South East Asia Research

"This is a fascinating book … it provides a considerable amount of information about the development of Malayan and Malaysian politics … [and] provides an excellent study of student activism in Malaysia … it will undoubtedly become one of the standard reference sources for this subject."—Leon Comber, New Mandala


Meredith L. Weiss is associate professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is the author of Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford U. Press, 2005), as well as numerous articles and book chapters; and coeditor of Between Protest & Passivity: Understanding Student Activism in Asia (forthcoming), Political Violence in South and Southeast Asia: Critical Perspectives (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2010), and Social Movements in Malaysia: From Moral Communities to NGOs (Abingdon, Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002, 2004). Her research focuses on issues of political mobilization and change, civil society, human rights, and collective identity in Southeast Asia.

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