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Resistance and resilience: Coping with/against the state.

Southeast Asia offers a bewildering panoply of forms and outcomes of social resistance contra the state. At the same time, regimes across the region are variously disposed towards challenges made through "official" channels. The result is a spectrum of contained and transgressive, broad-based and narrowly waged, permitted and suppressed, and successful and failed protest. What determines how activists and advocates pitch their claims, and how does venue shape content? A comparative examination of spaces and forms of engagement in the region, building on the work of Garry Rodan and Kanishka Jayasuriya to develop a typology of regimes and modes of engagement, serves to address these questions. That framework allows deeper consideration of the dynamics behind demands, identities and strategic choices than studies of contentious politics and state-society relations usually accommodate. It makes possible exploration of how prevailing parameters determine which issues and identity categories gain traction, what resources and alliances are most germane, and where the balance between electoral and less institutional modes of engagement falls. Examples from a selection of cases from more and less democratic regimes in Maritime Southeast Asia allow us to probe these dynamics in greater depth. This probing in turn permits consideration of dimensions of framing and brokerage, of co-optation and contestation, and of the logic behind activists' strategic decisions of how best to take on a less than liberal state.

Keywords: Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, mobilization, political participation, civil society, electoral authoritarianism, political opportunity structures.

Southeast Asia offers a panoply of forms and outcomes of social resistance contra the state. At the same time, its regimes are variously disposed towards challenges made through "official", or "contained", rather than "transgressive" channels (McAdam et al. 2001, pp. 7-8). The region's experience thus presents a full spectrum of broad-based and narrowly waged, permitted and suppressed, and successful and failed protest--although not all activists' goals or demands face the same menu of available venues and tactics. Exploring how activists and advocates pitch their claims, and how space shapes content, sheds light on the inner dynamics of social resistance in the context of more and less politically liberal states. When do proponents of a given cause see the greatest benefit in working with the state and when, against it? Or, to put it differently, how does an aspiring activist encounter the nooks and crannies of the state edifice? I propose that, while scholars tend to focus on ruling regimes in considering spaces or opportunities for activism, such a "supply-side" view is only partial. Moreover, while the literature likewise tends to consider engagement with formal politics as distinct from civil societal activity, I suggest that the line between the two may be hazy in practice. Activists exert independent agency in determining how and where to engage. These determinations depend on activists' perceptions of the reliability or suitability of different channels, both institutional and non-institutional. Common measures of relative regime liberalism or state capacity do not then line up neatly with metrics of activism and possibilities for influence, since differently oriented activists may assess their options differently. Similarly, the space for advocates to wield influence need not align neatly with the scope or density of civil society.

This investigation explores the interplay of context, issues, strategies and identities. It does not presume that relevant categories of actors, targets and tactics are static or predetermined, but rather regards them as always contingent. Under what circumstances do activists facing an authoritarian electoral regime choose to engage via opposition politics and elections rather than through less institutionally fixed social movements? When are so-called "new" and "old" social movements--loosely understood to refer to movements focused on quality of life and identity in the former case and those focused on pressing material needs in the latter (Offe 1985, pp. 821-32)--ascendant, and whose interests do they seek to advance? In an age of social media, online platforms and intensified economic globalization, what resources or allies are most pivotal or influential? When does resistance shade into or purposefully yield to co-optation, and how path-dependent are the strategies that activists choose?

I will trace this conceptual ground with reference to cases drawn primarily from Maritime Southeast Asia--an historically interlinked subregion, featuring a range of regimes and civil societies. Democratic praxis has faced or faces significant curbs in all of the subregion's states. Present and past threats of state repression colour citizens' experience of and trust in formal politics. While, following a democratic transition, the memory of previous predation fades over time, no regime in the region is a full, secure liberal democracy. This examination permits consideration of dimensions of framing and brokerage, of co-optation and contestation, and of the logic behind activists' strategic decisions about how best to wrangle a less than liberal state. It brings together and extends strands in the prevailing literature on contentious politics, including political opportunities and state-society relations.

Spaces and Forms of Engagement

Among the most obvious, yet thorniest, factors determining patterns of political participation is the nature of the regime in question. That so much of the literature on contentious politics or social mobilization focuses on state-oriented political opportunity structures --alignments of leaders and institutions, shifts in which signal that the time is especially ripe or unpropitious for political mobilization --is not without reason. What that focus may obscure, however, is the extent to which activists and state overlap, how contingent on the issue of concern to them and on their positions activists' reading of political opportunities is, and how much of activist strategy the character--or blandishments, promises or threats--of the state does not determine.

In all but the most hermetically closed regimes, engagement may be either through or outside state channels, depending on what those channels are. Those channels that run through the state are substantially crafted and maintained by the state for its own purposes of incorporation and input, even if they still offer meaningful access to policy processes. Furthermore, it is the state itself that has the most obvious power to set the contours of what is not the state--to define the parameters of civil society, however much those boundaries may then be contested. The character of that residual sphere serves to mould strategies and premises of engagement, from identities exercised to claims pressed. Regime type and state attributes thus do matter, but they are not deterministic.

"Civil society" is a messy concept. While we can readily claim the space at the nexus of formal politics, family structures and business as civil society in broad terms, it is harder to describe that domain more concretely. Most importantly, civil society, political society and economic society are inter-permeable: specific actors, issues and even organizations may move between or span two or even all three arenas, and civil society may not be entirely autonomous from the state. In addition, none of these spheres is static. Changes in the nature of the regime, in access to online or digital space and in forms of economic organization reverberate across political, civil and economic society alike. Even so, we can specify that civil society is a realm of voluntaristic, generally collective and self-supporting, activity, however structured. It seeks to provide or secure public and collective, rather than merely private, goods. It is separate from, and in its ideal form autonomous of, the state. And it persists to some extent under any regime (Diamond 1996, p. 228; Kaviraj and Khilnani 2001).

As prior work attests, simply classifying regimes on a standard democratic-authoritarian continuum is inadequate to predict or describe what civil society will look like or do in a given state. More refined frameworks offer greater leverage. For instance, Muthiah Alagappa (2004) divides states in the region into those with "legitimate", "controlled and communalized" or "repressed" civil societies. This taxonomy neither indicates necessary potency or depth of civil society, nor suggests that all states with legitimate civil societies approximate liberal democracy, in the sense of maximally open participation and contestation. Rather, it homes in on the relative legality of associational life and on official tolerance of autonomous political participation outside the state. Such a lens offers insight into the potential for extra-state involvement, but it says less about the relative attraction of differing modes of engagement or about the trade-offs among them. Anders Uhlin (2016) updates this framework usefully, by retaining the labels, "legitimate" and "repressed" but viewing the intermediate category as just "controlled". He specifies these categories not so much with reference to states' recognition of civil society per se as with reference to available political opportunities, particularly for "independent associational life" (ibid.).

More germane still to the questions addressed in this article, for its effort to decouple activism from "civil society" alone, is the approach of Kanishka Jayasuriya and Garry Rodan (2007). They classify modes of political participation and patterns of contestation, representation and alliance. Jayasuriya and Rodan (ibid.) focus on post-authoritarian and "hybrid" or electoral authoritarian regimes, which blend features of democratic praxis with authoritarian controls. Their account foregrounds questions of how institutions manage political conflict, considering the relationships of power between state and societal actors that guide how individuals and groups seek access to political resources and legitimacy. They argue for the salience of political economy as an overarching frame, suggesting that capitalist development moulds both economic ownership and control and the exercise of political authority and influence (Rodan and Jayasuriya 2009, p. 25; Jayasuriya and Rodan 2007, pp. 775-76).

In contemplating these dynamics, Jayasuriya and Rodan (2007) consider extra-parliamentary political activity inside and outside the state in tandem. They classify regimes, first, according to the forms of representation that available modes of participation favour: which individuals or groups are included or excluded, especially in the absence of the range of intermediary organizations--effective parties, unions and others--characteristic of liberal democracies. Second, they chart whether participation is on the part of individuals or collective actors on one axis and whether it is state-sponsored or autonomous from the state on the other (Jayasuriya and Rodan 2007, pp. 780-82). Their typology includes collective, state-sponsored "societal incorporation", of which examples include Thai social investment funds and nominated members of parliament in Singapore. It also takes in collective but autonomous "civil society expression", such as Thai non-governmental associations focused on labour issues and urban poor groups in the Philippines, though such organizations may also represent societal incorporation. The typology includes individual, state-sponsored "administrative incorporation", including Vietnamese grievance processes and Singapore's government-directed Feedback Unit. A final mode of participation in the typology is autonomous "individualized political expression"--for instance, bloggers and alternative media such as Malaysia's Malaysiakini.

Jayasuriya's and Rodan's typology moves us further into the practical how and why of participation than do works focused on civil society as something fundamentally distinct from, even if complementary to and entangled with, the state (Jayasuriya and Rodan 2007). The state still holds primary agency in this typology. In creating space for societal incorporation, for instance, the state aims to facilitate policymaking, "not to bypass existing NGOs and social groups but to harness them to the joint objectives of state agencies and multilateral organizations", at the expense of potentially unsettling contestation (Jayasuriya and Rodan 2007, pp. 783-84). Likewise, administrative incorporation entrenches a technocratic understanding of politics, by converting political problems "into issues of administrative delivery and efficiency" (ibid., p. 788). For these modes to work requires that the public play along, but by the state's rules. Issue advocates may thus make more assured headway towards their goals than through consumer boycotts or petition campaigns, classified here as forms of individualized political expression, or through collective and sometimes elite-co-opted efforts such as stop-gap self-help groups among the urban poor. But they may do so only by embracing a comparatively narrow understanding of "acceptable" conflicts and interests (ibid., pp. 790-91).

This framework undergirds my own analysis--except that, where Jayasuriya and Rodan (2007) focus on the state's structuring of political space to understand which conflicts and issues find articulation, I turn the lens to how would-be participants navigate across that space towards their own objectives, and under a wider range of regimes. (1) This perspective takes political opportunity structures and state-society relations as more textured and interactive than do more state-centred accounts. Even if the forces of capitalism and its imbrication with the state necessarily limit strategic options, citizens do still have choice to exercise--whether to oppose or to collaborate with state actors and institutions, and how. In other words, I see more strategic agency remaining, both within and around the state, than Jayasuriya's and Rodan's more statist, and more nearly economically determinist, lens suggests.

This reading draws upon a broader understanding of political opportunity structures and collective action, and of state and society as disaggregated rather than monolithic. Migdal's formulation of state power is useful: "patterns of domination are determined by key struggles spread through... multiple arenas of domination and opposition. Officials at different levels of the state are key figures in these struggles, interacting--at times, conflicting--with an entire constellation of social forces in disparate arenas" (Migdal 1994, p. 9). Evaluating a given state requires assessing how much it dominates and transforms these social forces, incorporates them, is incorporated by them, or fails to penetrate society (ibid., pp. 24-26). While Migdal's chief aim is to conceptualize how the state manifests authority, the flip side of that coin is how social forces engage, including their strategy in the face of different styles of domination. McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (2001; refined in subsequent editions) usefully characterize the full continuum of social resistance, from social movements to revolutions, under the frame of "contentious politics". However, that approach situates the state as a (necessary) party to contention, and not as a potential ally of those working for targeted social change where other channels are less promising.

We cannot assume that activists working within and outside state institutions, or with different objectives or identity bases, attribute the same meaning to shifts in political opportunities or respond to the same apparent openings. What matters is not just what space is available--a product largely of relative political liberalism and state capacity--but also what alternatives specifically positioned activists see as promising, ideologically congruent with their own objectives, and, where collective action is entailed, offering an encouraging balance of potential risks and rewards. (2)

As Garry Rodan argues, part of the durability of electoral authoritarianism may lie in a regime's construction of "viable alternatives" to structures of "democratic representation and accountability" (Rodan 2009, p. 440). Singapore's installation of appointed rather than elected members of parliament via the nominated member of parliament (NMP) scheme is a case in point. NMPs embody politics as "problem-solving" rather than struggle, and they enable the strategic inclusion in government of targeted social forces in such a way as to bypass and sideline intermediary organizations such as political parties. The scheme thus limits the scope and volatility of contestation over normative frameworks and policy goals (Rodan 2009, p. 442). Interviewing a sample of NMPs, Rodan finds that their "tangible policy impact is unimpressive", though not nil (Rodan 2009, pp. 459-60). Yet individuals are co-opted, not conscripted, as NMPs. Under what conditions do individuals with an agenda to advance choose this mode of participation?

More broadly, taking Jayasuriya's and Rodan's typology of channels as a starting point, we may ask what sorts of regime characteristics, demands or identities tend to encourage electoral challenges from opposition politics within the system; which favour contained protest, funnelled through state-linked channels in the hybrid regimes that dominate the Maritime Southeast Asian political landscape; and which yield transgressive protest within civil society? How, then, do those parameters shape the roster of issues and identities that gain traction? What sort of typology of the circumstances under which would-be advocates choose one or another of the pathways available might be possible?

A first step towards answering these questions is to conceptualize the space on hand. Three principal spaces are available, each allowing for both collective and individual action, to differing degrees: autonomous civil society, extra-electoral state-sponsored or institutional space, and electoral politics. Autonomous civil society may be focused on changing the state, or its policies, or directed towards attitudes and behaviours in society itself, while extra-electoral space may comprise, for instance, formal feedback mechanisms.

On its face, the schema proposed, and summarized in Table 2, merely adds a pair of cells to Jayasuriya's and Rodan's matrix. But it also disaggregates state space so as to capture a wider range of voluntarism and objectives--specifically, the quality of challenge posed. The distinction between incorporation into the structures of an incumbent regime and efforts to displace that regime reflects the agency that actors exercise in choosing how to participate, even if both strategies occur in "formal" political space. Selection of civil societal space allows access to a more transgressive toolkit than that available to those pursuing "insider" strategies. We might reasonably expect, as some of the examples introduced below affirm, a concordance among identity, objective and strategy. Neither the categories of actors barred from state space nor the pursuit of issues that are at odds with its premises have much to lose by confronting rather than adapting to the constraints that they face. Yet even channels for participation that seem undemocratic in their form or in the values in which they are grounded may allow opportunities to enhance political pluralism and contribute to political change (Rodan 1997, p. 157).

Not all hybrid states provide or protect all six options in equal measure. Singapore has optimized extra-electoral state space in large part to obviate support for opposition parties by emplacing more beholden "alternative voices". Malaysia has, in contrast, a more open electoral playing field. At the same time, activists in either state who see benefit to entering formal politics to effect desired policy changes--an "insider" approach--may well choose to do so via the dominant party or coalition. New Order Indonesia left the only possibility of engagement to civil society. However, it strictly curtailed that space, while also co-opting groups like the paramilitary Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth). (3) Weak parties and enduring patrimonial residues continue to limit the utility of statist or electoral channels in Southeast Asia's largest country. Low state capacity and anaemic parties likewise favour civil societal activism in the Philippines. However, in the Philippines participation in civil society offers more of an active pull, since less stringent constraints mean that activists have a greater chance of coherent mobilization and efficacy. State and regime characteristics, then, do play a role in determining would-be participants' options. Nevertheless, those participants still exercise choice in deciding which route to pursue, weighing not only relative risks and the relative degrees of access that various routes afford but also the nature of the claims that they seek to press and ongoing feedback from intended targets. They need, that is, to assess how rigid or malleable structures for incorporation might be. (4)

To gain a firmer grip on when political participants opt for cooptation rather than contestation, and how they do so, we might consider, first, the extent and quality of political space; second, the collective identity behind and claims of a given movement or set of actors; and, third, the sort of feedback from extant elites that it is likely to encounter.

How Do Citizens Participate?

Understanding how, when and to what effect political participation transpires may begin with an exploration of the state, but the quest does not stop there. Looking beyond structural preconditions to see the ways in which different identity categories or claims tend to present themselves offers insight into the alliances that form within and outside formal politics. It also sheds light on the balance between electoral and less institutional modes of engagement and on the content and direction of advocacy efforts.

Extent and Quality of Political Space

"Political space" is, like its component part civil society, a useful but amorphous concept. It includes not just formal, electoral politics, but other venues in which individuals and groups mobilize for political ends: both political society and civil society (Hansson and Weiss forthcoming). Yet not all that happens within such space is visible, and those mobilizing may simultaneously pursue purely recreational or otherwise apolitical goals. A useful way of distinguishing liberal democracy from other regime types looks less to institutional metrics than to the relative openness of political space. For instance, what controls limit access to, or the range of activity within, this space?(5) And, especially in illiberal settings, how much does the availability of hard-to-regulate online space change the potential for voice or mobilization?

While it is easiest to chart formal, legal constraints on political space--rules requiring registration of social organizations, limits on the formation of political parties or curbs on the issues that may be openly discussed, for instance--informal norms or other characteristics may do as much as such constraints to structure access. Such attributes include, among others, patterns of ethnic or religious segregation, an urban bias to organizational activity, or a dominant official language in a multilingual state. Meanwhile, particularly among members of a comfortable middle-class stratum, fear of falling from social position (Ehrenreich 1989) may independently deter participation, at least outside "safe", formal channels or beyond matters of material self-interest.

The varyingly hybrid/liberal states of Southeast Asia offer different topographies for engagement. Provision of reasonably convincing extra-electoral, but formally institutionalized, political space requires fairly high state capacity. Singapore has the most extensive space of this sort, spanning a range of feedback mechanisms for individuals, as well as parastatal or parapolitical institutions for corporatist collective inclusion of economic and ethno-religious segments of the population. Most salient among this parastatal sector is the People's Association, which runs an alphabet soup of "grass-roots" community centres, committees, councils and ad hoc activities. It thus engages thousands of citizens, many of them also members or supporters of the governing People's Action Party or PAP (Tan 2003, pp. 4-10; Seah 1987, pp. 175-76). From the outset, the component organizations of the People's Association have had to "pretend not to be political" (Kimball 1968, p. 50) and to blur lines of attribution among government, party and private or voluntary sector. Being technically separate from party branch offices lends respectability to these organizations, even though they are similarly tasked with "two-way communication" between state and citizenry and both development and dispensation of programmes and services (ibid., pp. 50-51, 53). The breadth and depth of this space, and the plausibility of the state's implementing policies for taking into account the grass-roots feedback that it solicits, make acceding to co-optation, at the individual or group level, appealing.

However, space like that created by the People's Association in Singapore excludes those citizens whose identity basis or claims controvert the parameters or agendas set by the state. The state invites only some interests into this space. For instance, sexuality rights activists find little traction in this domain, finding themselves pressed instead towards participation in civil society as an alternative (Weiss 2006, pp. 674-75). The same high-capacity state also constrains civil society, however relatively inclusive, by enforcing curbs on freedoms of association and speech and restrictions on the media. Still, participation in civil society allows empowerment without requiring activists to pass judgment on the legitimacy of state institutions, albeit also without any assurance of audience or impact.

Only certain identity categories find voice in electoral politics in Singapore. Parties and candidates are forbidden to appeal to racial or religious loyalties, non-governmental organizations or NGOs may not readily ally with political parties, youths cannot vote until the age of twenty-one and the nearly one-third of long-term residents who are not citizens are fully disenfranchised. Overall, opposition politics in Singapore offers voice, but with risk and with little chance of policy influence. Opposition candidates only infrequently win seats in parliament, though their election is marginally less rare now than in the past. Activists or advocates who see policy change as necessary to their objectives may seek instead to work from within the PAP itself--or from within the People's Association or similar organizations. However, the selection processes and criteria for candidates running under the party's banner leave little space for any but skilled, technocratic professionals.

In Malaysia, by contrast, electoral politics absorbs a larger share of participatory energies. Political parties enjoy more open political space for opposition, and differently pitched component parties comprise the ever-dominant governing coalition. The greater likelihood of being elected as an opposition candidate in Malaysia than in Singapore and the tantalizing, not wholly unrealistic, prospect of opposition parties' forming at least state-level governments encourage activists to work through political parties rather than civil societal organizations. They also encourage stalwarts among members of those latter organizations to close ranks behind opposition parties or coalitions at elections. (6 )Both parties and civil societal organizations are inclusive of a range of identities and claims, though substantial segments of each are exclusive to one or another racial or religious community.

Importantly, while the specific structure of Malaysia's moderately competitive hybrid polity encourages electoral engagement, the lure of parties may perversely diminish or dilute activists' clout. This is especially true in the context of the deeply entrenched coalitional and communal logic of electoral competition in the country. Opposition parties might lose, and the ruling coalition might claim a mandate for its contrary positions. Moreover, advocates for minority or marginalized interests may also find that even these parties give low priority to the issues that interest them, particularly in the case of potentially divisive--that is, vote-losing--issues or causes at odds with the interests of the Malay-Muslim majority. Electoral logic requires some muddying of polarizing positions for the sake of opposition unity. For instance, the specific character of parties' approach to Islamism has stymied electoral pacts and scuttled two recent opposition coalitions--the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) and the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact)--that left the matter of arriving at common positions until after elections that they contested. Furthermore, the nature of Malaysian political campaigns, especially their short duration and the limited range of permissible activities, promotes the adoption of fairly vague electoral platforms, even when parties do have well-articulated agendas. In 2010, Pakatan Rakyat included a wide range of objectives in its Buku Jingga (Orange Book) master plan, but not all of them made it into the abbreviated platform on which the coalition contested in 2013 (for example, Lee 2013).

Unlike Singapore, Malaysia lacks an extra-electoral sphere dominated by a strong state, though groups have arisen over the years to approximate such a space. Most notably, state-sponsored Islamist organizations intended to counter autonomous parallel organizations in civil society have emerged (Camroux 1996, p. 858). More recent times have seen the establishment of Malay-Muslim rights organizations formed independently of the state but so closely affiliated with the ruling United Malays National Organisation as to seem like its proxies. (7) Civil societal space is controlled, as in Singapore, but still more densely populated and lively. Activity ranges from individual actions that find expression in Internet media to collective action in the shape of fora, petitions and occasional street protests. Street protests have grown more frequent in recent years, in part because of the boost to mobilization that online political space, particularly social media, affords.

Where the blurred lines between state and civil societal space are perhaps most apparent in Malaysia is in the extent to which purportedly autonomous groups and activists police civil society and pronounce on which identities and claims lack standing even there. Prominent examples include attacks on individuals associated with the Seksualiti Merdeka (Sexuality Independence) initiative (Pang 2015, pp. 361-64), on the feminist Sisters in Islam (Basarudin 2016) or on the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, known by the Malay term Bersih or Clean (for instance, Malaysiakini, 20 September 2016). Shut out of or intolerably constrained by institutional channels, such groups are more prone to resort to transgressive tactics, despite their greater risk: mass demonstrations for electoral reform, sexuality rights activists' embrace of arts and public-education initiatives, or the more subtle turn on the part of Sisters in Islam to allies overseas as an alternative to working with patriarchal local ulama (Basarudin 2016, pp. 230-32).

A different pattern still prevails in the Philippines. Here we see a panoply of political parties, including those contesting for proportional party-list seats as representatives of constituencies active in the anti-authoritarian movement of the mid-1980s, which tend to have less voice in the catch-all major political parties (Teehankee 2002, pp. 181-85). However, newly formed identity groups--for instance, the well-organized transgender community--or other non-elite activists have fairly little chance of cracking elite-family hegemony in or the influence of the Catholic Church on the country's mainstream, effectively only semi-democratic, electoral politics. Nor does the state have the capacity--or, historically, the legitimacy --to structure the sort of state-led, contained, participation seen in Singapore.

As political parties are unreliable vehicles for pressing pro-grammatic claims or representing non-dominant interests, political participation veers towards civil society, spanning not only a range of non-governmental and community-based organizations, but also popular checks on electoral politics in the form of recurrent "People Power" mobilizations. Activists target both state policies and behaviour on the one hand and society itself on the other. They structure self-help initiatives among poorly served communities, as for instance in the case of advocacy organizations' efforts to help rural poor claimants press legal claims to land (Franco 2008). They seek to change popular understandings of, for example, gender roles or the proper ambit of the authority of the Church (Weiss 2013, pp. 157-58). Indeed, Philippine NGOs not only poach members from more effective or radically activist peer organizations, but they also stand in for--and hence take the pressure off--inadequately representative political parties (Clarke 1998). Some NGOs also seek allies and frame targets beyond state borders. For instance, Filipino housing, land and poverty rights activists have made efforts to refocus their activities from domestic resistance to collaboration spanning organizations working at local through transnational scales (Ley et al. 2016). Similarly, local social movement organizations have joined transnational anti-globalization efforts at both the regional and global levels (Caouette and Tadem 2012).

Post-Reformasi Indonesia suggests limits to the electoral terrain similar to those in the Philippines, even as democracy has gained purchase. Recent survey data suggest that only 7 per cent of Indonesians feel "close" to any political party (Jackson 2014, p. 100). The percentage of Indonesians who participate politically in some guise is higher, though still less than stunning: while 90 per cent vote, 75 per cent "manifest no political activity" otherwise (ibid., p. 104). Here, too, state incorporation is limited, though not non-existent. It occurs particularly through such local structures as rukun tetangga, or neighbours' associations. But the boundary between civil society and formal politics in Indonesia is muddy. In an increasingly atomized polity, most voters' point of connection to candidates for election comes, for instance, via local "success team" (tim sukses) members, who canvass for a given candidate or candidates--and often distribute gifts--during the campaign period. They channel their work through civil societal networks and organizations, as well as family and neighbourhood relationships (Aspinall 20146, pp. 551-55). Yet the continuing salience of patronage politics and pressures to vote for personalities rather than parties limit the plausibility of electoral or other state space as a venue for pursuing normative or targeted policy change (Aspinall 2014a, p. 100).

Civil society faces fewer formal curbs in Indonesia than in Singapore or Malaysia, but here, too, parapolitical and often indeed paramilitary groups police the breadth of identities expressed. They target for instance, Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, or transgender activists, and substantially define the political landscape in parts of the country such as Aceh (for instance, Wilson 2014, pp. 2-3; Jakarta Post, 4 May 2010; Emont 2017).

States in Maritime Southeast Asia thus see would-be activists and advocates venue-shop, choosing the most accommodating niche within political space. Advocates for the urban poor might participate in parastatal organizations capable of offering targeted, efficient relief in Singapore; throw their energy behind opposition parties willing to adopt those issues as their own and seeming to have some chance of winning seats in Malaysia; mobilize local communities for collaborative improvements in the Philippines, perhaps with support from civil societal groups; or seek to capture the interest of an aspiring politician in Indonesia. Yet, particularly in comparatively illiberal political contexts, where conditions for autonomous mobilization are constrained, activists tend either to be pushed towards contentious engagement, however curbed, or to be wooed towards co-optation, in order to make use of points of access offered by the state. Participation within state space, electoral or not, offers the alluring possibility of change from within. Yet it offers no guarantee of influence, especially where civil society remains attenuated or too constrained to serve as an effective check on formal politics (Dryzek 1996, p. 486). Moreover, such participation is unlikely to include broad normative challenges to state priorities or objectives. Rather, participation within space defined by the state effectively legitimates and accepts that state, except where opposition political parties pose a systemic alternative. In the latter case, the incumbent regime will do all that it can to safeguard its turf. When activists' demands run counter to specific regime attributes or goals, as is the case for a subset of activists even in the most formally liberal of regimes, mobilization via civil society may be their most appealing option. This mobilization may include adoption of overtly transgressive means.

Change pressed by civil society may have dramatic effect, as in the case of the toppling of Soeharto's New Order in Indonesia. It may be quashed by means of coercion, as in the case of Myanmar's 2007 Saffron Revolution. Or it may have some degree of influence, as seen in the passage of the Philippines' Reproductive Health Act, championed by feminist and sexuality rights activists. (8) This domain of political space, too, accommodates both ideological and policyspecific claims, and it may offer a berth to groups to which neither political parties nor policymakers cater, from sexual minorities to beleaguered religious groups to fringe ideologues. Civil society is thus potentially the most inclusive arena, internal contests and rivalries over turf notwithstanding, but may not engage directly with the state and its policies.

Collective Identity and Claims Pressed

While political space varies in its character and quality, it is not just activists' preferences, but also the substance of their claims, that determines where participation occurs. Not all categories of activists, pressing different sorts of demands or claims, confront an equal range of options. Even when engagement is largely at the individual, rather than group, level, patterns of inclusion tend to be categorical, or to reflect conceptualizations of individuals according to collective identities. That shift in frame may be strategic. Singapore's NMP scheme, for example, brings into parliament individuals to serve as purported representatives of particular social segments, without requiring or even facilitating accountability to those segments (Rodan 2009, pp. 458-59). More broadly, those actors representing categories out of joint with state parameters, even in contexts in which co-opted engagement is otherwise possible, or categories without the electoral significance to secure articulation in political party platforms face few strategic options: they must resist in order to make headway.

Importantly, while any actor or group may potentially find a niche, however constrained, within civil society, that space is not necessarily egalitarian, democratic or otherwise welcoming. Civil society and groups within it may be as divided, hierarchical or squabble-prone as participants in electoral politics. A subset of organizations, too, adopt clearly "uncivil" methods, from the Thai Village Scouts, a quasi-fascist group initially sponsored by the Thai police that played an active role in the right-wing military crackdown of 1976 (Bowie 1997), to vigilante Islamist groups like Indonesia's Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) (Wilson 2014), to the infamous yet shadowy "ultra-Malay" nationalist gang network Pekida (Persatuan Kebajikan Islam dan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia, Malaysian Muslim Welfare and Missionary Organisation, also known as Tiga Line or Three Lines) in Malaysia (Lemiere 2014). Exercising voice, in other words, need not include courting or finding a fully receptive or supportive audience.

Those claimants representing categories of people sanctioned by the state roam political space most freely. Even so, their specific claims may lack assured purchase. Women who have legitimate voices as women, but deploy that voice to denounce state policies prejudicial to their educational and career opportunities or their sexual and reproductive autonomy, are an example. Such limitations are especially keen and obvious in the realm of extra-electoral state space, as the same state that contributors seek to engage or check moderates participation in that space. Particularly when it comes to administrative incorporation--as through the institutionalized feedback system in Singapore previously dubbed the Feedback Unit and now bearing the clunky moniker Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home, or REACH--the state may be highly selective in deciding whom to consult and how seriously. This exclusivity is true not least when the state's objective is eliciting concrete suggestions to shape policies rather than just gauging public reactions to existing enactments (Rodan and Jayasuriya 2007, pp. 799-800). While some state-sponsored feedback channels do enjoy policy influence, they have such sway largely "where ideas complement or improve government policy" (ibid., pp. 802-3).

Other groups rely upon more influential allies for voice. Migrant workers, for instance, both coming from and working in the states under discussion here, represent a growing share of the population of the region. As non-citizens, they lack standing to participate in many state-sponsored channels for participation, such as those coming under REACH, or in elections. Where rights to free association are restricted, as in Malaysia and Singapore, non-citizens also have little chance to participate in civil society activities, even apart from their often vulnerable status, social isolation and limited time and material resources. Those who present the collective claims of such workers are more often "conscience constituents", or advocates who act on behalf of others out of moral or ideological commitment, than potential beneficiaries themselves (McCarthy and Zald 1977, pp. 1221-22). These activists come together into organizations like Tenaganita in Malaysia, for instance, or Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) in Singapore. Yet middle-class advocacy, while lending one form of voice, may supplant or tame more confrontational and perhaps empowering initiatives. For instance, the intervention of labour NGOs in Indonesia--essential under the New Order, when trade unions were hobbled, and now retaining research, training and advocacy roles--may limit the potential for more autonomous trade union mobilization in post-transition Indonesia. It may also retard conceptualization of labour rights as especially privileged among human rights more broadly (Ford 2009, p. 9; also Hadiz 2002). Moreover, xenophobia or other forms of discrimination, competition for jobs and resources, and apathy or risk-aversion may impose limits on the growth of solidaristic, middle-class support for foreign migrant workers.

The character of claims pressed also helps to determine the nature of engagement with the state. On the one hand, business groups may prefer the least-disruptive mode, corporatist co-optation. Labour may work through trade unions not just for the ready space that they offer, but also for the legitimacy and legal niche that trade union activism enjoys as a vehicle for mobilization. Groups defined by religion may likewise choose to channel their efforts through sectarian structures within civil society, even when other avenues are available, because those bodies are distinctive to and legitimate in the community. Malaysian Muslim groups in particular have at times promoted the notion of a masyarakat madani, or society modelled on that of the Prophet Mohammad's time, with a specifically consultative, non-confrontational mien and an ideology promoting morality, justice, fairness and civility (MINDS 1997). Advocates cannot convincingly pursue claims for a specific way of doing politics via strategies that violate those same principles. In the case of such a clash of norms, activists' calculated choices will matter more for the how and where of engagement than will the fact of state capacity or institutional opening.

Of course, participation need not follow only one track. Malaysian opposition parties and civil societal groups do tend to collaborate, for instance. Nearly a decade's worth of well-coordinated Bersih electoral-reform protests, joined by political parties, non-governmental organizations and individuals, epitomize such collaboration (Govindasamy 2015, pp. 117-19). Still, party and civil societal organizations' ultimate objectives, and hence strategies, do diverge. Political parties have as their overarching goal securing elected office. Civil societal organizations do not share that objective, but focus instead on policy, identity claims or other targets. Hence, for instance, the observed discrepancy in the fervour with which non-state activists and opposition parties in the opposition-controlled Malaysian states of Penang and Selangor press for the restoration of local council elections (e.g., Wong 2009). For parties now in power at the state level, the benefits of having their own people, or those amenable to their own and the business community's economic plans, win seats on such councils may outweigh the ideological emphasis on public choice and accountability that civil societal activists stress. It is the latter group that has thus pursued the reintroduction of local council elections more aggressively (Rodan 2014, pp. 830-32).

Feedback and Responses

Each of these modes of engagement engenders different sorts of state responses, ranging from silence, to dismissal or exclusion, to change in policy, to crackdown. Some episodes reshape the channels for participation through which these efforts occur, facilitating or proscribing further such voice. Collective challenges are more likely to provoke a response--positive or negative--than are individual-level actions, though that distinction may be hazy. A blogger writes in isolation, but sometimes in the service of collective action. Participation within civil society space, extending from social media use to street protests, necessarily meets with the widest variety of responses. Each of these responses--from accommodation to repression--feeds back to shape subsequent mobilization, whether directly or indirectly, by retooling expectations. Participation through electoral politics follows a more common script, of parries and responses by parties, and differing levels of turnout and zeal for campaign events and polling day among voters. Extra-electoral, institutionalized state space is the least tolerant of real disruption. The range of responses is narrower--from policy change, to dismissal of input, to recalibration of the set of accepted participants.

The nature of elites in the polity matters in determining how states address engagement. Comparatively authoritarian elites, as in Singapore, will seek to suppress activism outside channels that they design and control. They are likely to suppress autonomous social protest in particular, for both the immediate and deterrent effect of that suppression. Perhaps the starkest example in the region was Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's takedown in 1994 of novelist Catherine Lim as an illegitimate "armchair critic" for two op-eds that she wrote suggesting that the mass of Singaporeans felt disaffected from increasingly aloof, arrogant PAP leaders and that Goh's promise of consultative, open governance had come to naught. Goh introduced the now-ubiquitous concept of "OB" (out-of-bounds) markers in branding Lim's independent intervention unacceptable (Tan 2009, pp. 50-56).

The more technocratic among elites, including those in Singapore, will, however, seek to co-opt or divide activists. They will thus seek to see good ideas remain on the table, but fail to pose a threat, while still discrediting or suppressing too-challenging or unhelpful proposals. Elites inclined towards political liberalism, particularly living under generally liberal regimes, may readily countenance the full range of participatory options. However, they themselves may lack decisive policy influence, or the state may lack capacity or cohesion. Moreover, even liberal-minded elites are under no obligation to grant policy access or make concessions to specific would-be interveners. The participation of international allies, whether they represent the allies of governing elites or of activists posing challenges to the state, tends further to shift both elite strategies and the distribution of leverage. Regardless, as participation broadens or persists, it adjusts the balance of elites, access points and prevailing preferences. It thus shifts the ground for subsequent engagement.

Just as significant as the nature of elites, though, is the goal that those individuals and groups who engage pursue: do they aspire to influence on policy, to regime change or to voice and self-organization? Those pursuing each of these goals benefit from different types of political space, understand success differently and might anticipate different feedback. If the goal is policy access, co-optation may be more appealing than the greater autonomy that civil society affords. Co-optation at least promises regularized access and comparatively transparent responses from the state. We might indeed see the process of democratization in Singapore in particular as "the expansion of political participation and consultation within the limits defined by the state", rather than as the project of an adversarial civil society (Brown and Jones 1995, p. 84). If the aim is to take over the state apparatus, electoral politics is clearly the appropriate venue, since civil societal organizations differ from parties in not seeking political office. The greater independence of civil society "affords the most substantive capacity and potential for social forces to both resist and co-operate with the state in their own interests" (Rodan 1997, p. 158). Yet that very same autonomy might effectively quarantine inputs or shield state elites from feeling pressed to respond favourably.

Manoeuvring through State and Space

We come back to the questions of what sorts of polities promote or support what sorts of engagement, and with what implications. As the foregoing discussion suggests, individuals and groups select strategically among the options available to them. "Contained" channels within state space may offer additional platforms for those already most empowered, without truly broadening the field of engagement. Hence we see, for instance, the tilted playing field for engagement in Vietnam. Civil society-led efforts for land reform, civil liberties and other broad-based goals there have met with regulation and coercion (Kerkvliet 2003, pp. 15-16), even as business interests find voice in state-sanctioned chambers of commerce and similar bodies (Gainsborough 2002, p. 707).

Furthermore, this survey suggests the relative rarity of truly radical, in the sense of anti-systemic, engagement. For practical reasons, much participation instead feeds through formal institutional channels, electoral or otherwise. If the goal is influence, co-optation or working from the inside may be activists' best option--particularly for those with objectives to pursue but aversion to risk, or those who have internalized a state-promoted culture of deference to authority or preference for technocratic management. Political change under such circumstances, Jones argues, "reflects a conservative, managerial strategy to amplify political control by forging a new relationship with an arriviste middle class" (Jones 1998, p. 163). Even Singaporean civil society includes independent voices that contest against, rather than align with, the state, though much of the civil society sphere there is more cautiously reformist than directly challenging (Koh and Ooi 2000, pp. 62-76). Nor must civil societal organizations necessarily be progressive or inclusive, or primarily concerned with the liberalization of political institutions.

To say that civil societal organizations agitate, whether through state-supported or state-defying channels, is not to claim that they have real influence. Backlash and counterclaims, not just from the state but from other "autonomous" groups, may disrupt even goals of collective-identity formation and solidarity. At the same time, the augmentation of public space into an online sphere (Weiss 2014, p. 877) offers the possibility of participation without engaging the state or other targets directly. If "contentious journalism" (George 2006), for instance, increases awareness of just how controlling a hybrid state is, it might also serve to route protest outside administrative or electoral channels into less formal, virtual channels that could ultimately prove more productive of concrete change. Still, we ought to understand avenues for engagement, influence or protest --or any combination thereof--in relation to one another, on a multilevelled map of avenues for resistance, resilience and exercising voice in the face of only reluctantly responsive states. More broadly, the complexity of that map means that scholars must take seriously the full range of political spaces that activists might occupy, the multiplicity of readings of political opportunities at any given place and moment, and the interaction between state and society in shaping their mutual engagement.


I presented an earlier version of this paper as a keynote address at the International Symposium on Social Resistance in Non-Democracies at Lund University, 25-26 November 2014. Thanks to the organizer, Ang Ming Chee, for spurring me to get these thoughts on paper and to symposium participants for their feedback, which helped me to develop and clarify my ideas further. Thanks also to the journal's anonymous reviewers for their excellent suggestions.

Meredith L. Weiss is Professor, Department of Political Science. University at Albany, SUNY, 135 Western Ave., Albany, New York 12222, USA; email:


(1.) Keeping the emphasis on alternatives for policy influence and above-ground participation, my focus in this article is largely on non-violent modes of resistance and engagement. For a closer look at cognate strategic choices against the specific backdrop of violent contestation, see, for instance, Barter (2014). For exploration of the calculus behind selection of specific modalities of political violence, see the contributions to Abraham, Newman and Weiss (2010).

(2.) See, for instance, McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (2001, especially pp. 43-45); Mansbridge (2001); and Chong (1991).

(3.) Pemuda Pancasila is a parastatal group of preman (gangsters) that the state used to break strikes, suppress protests, and more--but whose members could, however, still turn against the state (Sidel 2004, p.


(4.) Similar strategic logic prevails when targets are private actors, such as corporations, rather than state policies or actors. Indeed, the industry or firm in question may stand in for the state in this typology, should the state proper lack relevant jurisdiction.

(5.) Importantly, it is not just state actors who police political space. Even institutional liberalism may coexist with exclusionary or otherwise coercive leanings or behaviours among social actors.

(6.) In Malaysia, however, youth under the age of twenty-one lack the vote (as they do in Singapore), and until recently public university students were barred from any involvement with political parties. Non-citizens are likewise still disenfranchised, but they comprise a smaller proportion of the population in Malaysia than in Singapore.

(7.) On Perkasa (Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia, Indigenous Empowerment Organisation), an important example of such groups, see Hafiz Yatim (2013).

(8.) Interview with Sylvia "Guy" Claudio, 1 July 2010, Quezon City.


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TABLE 1 Jayasuriya and Rodaa's Modes of Political Participation

                    Sites of Participation
Level of inclusion  State and Trans-State Sponsored  Autonomous from
                                                     the State

Individual          Administrative Incorporation     Individualized
Collective          Societal Incorporation           Civil Society

Source: Jayasuriya and Rodan (2007, p. 782).

TABLE 2 Reconceptualized Modes of Political Participation

            Civil society     Extra-electoral state/
                              institutional space

Individual  Blogging          Serving as NMP
                              Suing state agency for
Collective  Participation in  Corporatist bargaining
            NGOs              Co-opted paramilitaries
            Writing for
            online media

            Electoral politics

Individual  Running as independent

Collective  Joining opposition party
            Joining government party
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Author:Weiss, Meredith L.
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
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Date:Jul 1, 2017
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