Doing Cutting Edge Social Sciences: A Conversation with Francis Loh

NM: Good afternoon. We’re back again for the podcast and video series with Naratif Malaysia where in this program we talk to experienced and active scholars within the field of social sciences, policy making, and activism more specifically. Today we’re grateful to have with us here Prof Francis Loh who has been one of the most active scholars and writers, researchers as well as the advocacy of merging and trying to translate social sciences researches into activism and policymaking. A brief introduction of Prof Francis. He has held many positions in many countries such as Australia in Monash at Melbourne University, in Japan, and also in Penang particularly Universiti Sains Malaysia where I believe he has spent the bulk of his teaching and research here. He’s recently is working on a very important project on research on democracy, federalism and decentralisation and themes in regards to governance and politics in the context of Myanmar. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Maybe we could begin. Let’s just talk about what is happening in Malaysia now. Everyone is wondering is Malaysia imploding or going to sink under some critical issues, political issues that we’re confronting.  How do you see or make sense of what is happening today?

FL: I think something definitely is happening. For me, we are at the juncture again. At this juncture, the whole political system seems to be in transition. And you see this in terms of BN-UMNO which held power for 30-40 years is actually non-existent. Even UMNO itself cannot rule by itself like it used to be able to do. But they brought it a lot of BN coalition and all that. It cannot do that anymore. So it seems like the future requires that we go into coalition politics forever. A lot of the parties that emerging are very new things, and they are very much attached to particular individuals. So for me this is a very important transition. From Perikatan alliance to Barisan Nasional and then this one. I fear that it will also mean that government could be very short live and we might be actually going to the polls all of the time provided they continue to allow us to vote. They might decline no need to vote anymore. So that could actually happen. I think for me, one of the significant changes that’s happening is we have lost a lot of institutions over time. One of the strong institutions that we have left is political parties. Our judiciary was gone, our legislature for a long time are rubber stamp, universities have been really declining. But political parties are very vigorous and they had invigorated themselves by going into politics, media, universities, etc. But they themselves now are under assault.  So you ask yourself, given this circumstances, what is holding Malaysia together. Is it maybe a constitution of 1957, and because we have been so imbued with legalism as a people, so that’s perhaps is what holding us because we don’t have any respect for the police, we don’t have that great respect for judiciary, etc. So it’s all really beginning to wither away. And I’m very scared because I think the economy is also under assault, partly as a result of our kleptocracy reputation, but also because the global situation is under a flux. So you might not actually have a lot of investors coming in etc. In the sense this was Najib’s dilemma. He had to do business with china. Because nobody else was coming. And this of course allowed the Chinese to make certain agreement.

So this is the economy, and this Covid19 thing, we’re handling it much better but there could be another round of spike. So all these coincidences of pandemic, economy…

NM: Moving on to a more academic and theoretical question, how do you see social sciences as a field itself in Malaysia trying or being able to at least if not answer or resolve, but help us to understand and make sense of these things. How do you see it?

FL: For me, you don’t get social scientists zeroing in on these big issues. Have you do a survey of a lot of our academic journals in recent time? You’ll see that actually it’s full of multi-authored articles? They’re doing quantitative analysis by and large. Whereas actually the situation requires deep analysis. And you need to have a few volumes that actually investigate these kinds of big changes over time. Perhaps it needs to be done by a team. But it just needs to be done, but it’s not been done. And you cannot do this via quantitative analysis. For me that is one of the sad aspects. Related to that, you need people be looking at this whole mess of kleptocracy. I mean, what is the drive… What allows for kleptocracy to emerge and thrive in Malaysia? This is not a natural thing because we didn’t have this problem in the past. What are the circumstances which allowed for this?

NM: You mentioned that we didn’t have this kleptocracy… So in terms of this, could be say, institutional deficiency or how is it different from the past when it comes to kleptocracy? What is the significance of kleptocracy? Could you share with us?

FL: I think if you go back in time, the British time… Actually, the British was a very old-fashioned type of administrative people.  They left us a very strong set of institutions. And they took a lot of trouble to transit out and bring in the Malayanisation of the bureaucracy, the police, civil service, etc. Even legislative participation was done slowly–local government level, parliamentary level, state level, etc. So they did this. I think in Tunku’s time… After independence and all that, during this period he actually respected the need for these kinds of institutions. He was a British trained, legal person, etc. So that was with us for at least 10 years until 1969. Thereafter, for me, the 1970s was a period of transition. Chaotic. Absolutely chaotic. Starting with the 1969 election… The Chinese then decided–are we in or out with the government. Then finally they decided on BN. The students weren’t sure of what they wanted to do. There were student uprisings, the dakwah movement began to emerge. So this whole decade was a period of turbulence. Mahathir entered the scene–he changed everything. In the beginning, he asserted his authority–very authoritarian. Which climaxed in 1987, the Ops Lalang. But his style was by fiat. In the process, people who studied the Mahathir’s period, I don’t see enough analysis talking about how he destroyed the institutions. He then centralised power. He was very charismatic and capable; he kept the people in check. And that’s what held the country together. He was very lucky in the sense that his regime coincided with the East Asian where the economy was doing well as well. So Malaysia was part of the glorious period in East Asia. After the plaza courts in 1994, again all these FDIs started flowing into the country–from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, etc. He gave us a big phillip, economic wise[00:10:46.20]. And that period was when the economy was really just growing and growing until double digits per annum. Mahathir relaxed. He actually withdrew some of his authoritarianism. He privatised everything, then the economic bubbled up a bit, he allowed you 20 television stations… So it’s liberal in that sense, there was a choice. There was a lot of trouble about universities, then he allowed them to start private universities. In the sense, that period was so tense–10 years before–because people were competing to get into universities. He comes along and says, okay start your university. MCA got one license, MIC also got one. So the BN non-Malay parties all buy in. This period for me, I have described it as a period of developmentalism. We bought into the developmentalist… And he delivered. He was lucky because he rode on this regional economic development wave.

NM: Maybe we could zoom in on your own involvement more specifically your work and role and writings in the field and development of social sciences in Malaysia as well. One of the things that stand out and becomes very prominent is your role in instituting and being involved with Aliran. Reflecting back and looking at as you mentioned, those and in fact until now, there’s a continuity and discontinuity, how do you see your role in this trajectory of building Aliran maybe?

FL: I would like to just clarify. I played an important role in Aliran I think, but I was never the figure in charge. That honour goes to Ramakrishna. He held the fort for 18 years as president. I was his secretary for all this period of time and I took the excuse that I was in the university so I shouldn’t be leading. Rama was very annoyed with me about this, but nonetheless he continued on. Then it was only the last 5 or 6 years that I took over as president. So he held the fort. But I think that the role that I played was… In a sense I thought I was a middle man between this group called Aliran and the academicians, scholars, activists in USM. So who wrote for Aliran in that period of time? Johan Saravanamutu, Maznah Mohamad, Khoo Boo Teik, Khoo Kay Jin, Tan Liok Ee… They all from that place. I would chase these friends of mine. And they bought into the argument that we… I didn’t need to persuade them. They themselves were very… They understood politics. We talked about–we used the term–local knowledge. In the sense for me this is the special thing about scholar-activist. It’s not that you know the language better or you’re more informed about the religion, etc. Than the foreign scholars… We claim this advantage over foreign scholars because we have local knowledge. But actually, I pinned it down to a greater sensitivity to the politics of the day. And we addressed this the way that foreign scholars which sometimes didn’t sensitised or purposely avoid because it would jeopardise their positions. But we jumped in. That’s for me is the local advantage that we have. And I think it makes us cutting-edge because we then address critical issues of the day, we can identify what are the critical issues, and then we related to the other narrative and discourse which they want to do in America or England or Japan–the social sciences discourse. It’s a more political narrative and we tune it to it. We take these two and glue it together. I think this makes me and my friends special because we do this.

NM: And that has somehow been institutionalised if I may say. [00:16:02.29] going back to Aliran, at least as a platform for this to come up and to reflect…

FL: If you’re talking about NGOs, you don’t talk institutionalise. We networking. There is jalinkan hubungan itu. That’s actually what we succeeded in doing. And these were the people I could make sure that every year they will give us one or two articles. And I want to emphasise that we were a bunch of scholar-activists. We were very scholarly, we did the research, but we understood that this is not writing for academic journals. Speaking for myself, I see a symbiotic relationship between my popular writings for Aliran monthly or website and with academic work I do. Academic work I will put footnote, etc. But this one I don’t. I must learn how not to do it. You must be able to make your argument very succinct. And my reputation in Aliran is my articles are too long. I have problem that, but I’m still learning. You know you must learn to write around 3-pages or something like that. I’m very critical from this perspective. I’m very critical of people who have no patience to read beyond one page. Unfortunately, I think this is also one of the trends that is emerging. People think they automatically understand the situation because they have actually looked at the instant [00:17:49.19]. Actually, they don’t fully understand. I’ve made a lot of excuses for us doing scholarly analyses and writing lengthy pieces. I don’t think we should run away from… Being a scholar-activist doesn’t mean you give that out.

NM: Since you’ve mentioned on the academic component. In your own work, you’ve also researched and written extensively on political science themes and analyses. Over the years, what has occupied your attention and focus within the discipline of political science itself and perhaps maybe enlarging its relation within the larger social sciences field.

FL: I’ve done this quite consciously which is I’ve tried to look at politics in Malaysia from the side. My first work–PhD thesis–was focused on Kinta tin mines. It’s very different view from going to Putrajaya or Kuala Lumpur. It’s actually looking from the Chinese new villages, these squatters… These were part time miners. Every time the economy collapses, they get thrown out from tin mines and become squatter farmers. But because the state doesn’t allow them to a license, they remain temporarily doing things like that. So I’ve always done this kind of research. So when I finished and climbed out of the mines, I went to Sabah. So I did work on the Kadazandusun. At that time when I went it wasn’t turbulence. Of course I got attracted by turbulence as well. I went there and I was very interested to find out the re-emergence of Kadazandusun nationalism. I didn’t know what’s the character because they’ve already had one round of nationalism under Fuad Stephens. So this one was the re-emergence of an ethno-regionalism etc. But they were very clear–they don’t want to be colonised by the Semenanjung. And they use terms like “we are one of three, not one of thirteen”. This is their terminology I pick up when I was there. I discovered that all the leaders of parties were not interested to become menteri persekutuan. They actually focused on local and state politics. And I’ve done research on this: turnout rates for state elections always higher than general elections. So I did that. Coming back here, I started looking at Indians. I did a very important essay as a [00:21:07.13] for my mentor, Benedict Anderson, on the plight of the Indians. Again, by coincidence, in Penang there was this conflict that took place in kampung… Just outside Dato Keramat. So I happened to have just finished some interviews with that people. So very easily for me to go back to the village to talk about this. I was with SERI at that time and SERI was doing a study on the plight of the Penang Indians. So we took off from that. Then I connected to what Kumar was doing in Sungai Siput, and just sort of sowed articles together. I’m finishing a piece. I have shied away from writing about Islam but I’m trying to put my different articles together in the collection, then I have to write about Islam. So I’ve been reading and I want to write this final piece. Apart from that, I have article which I delivered in Kyoto which has not been published which is on labour. And the title is actually “what has happened to labour in Malaysia?”, nobody is studying labour.

NM: It’s no longer a term that people talk about. On that, in going forward, what do you see as an observer and scholar. Do you see any recurring themes that have been unresolved and still emerge? In addition to that, are there any new critical issues that have rose to the field of research?

FL: I think one of the weaknesses in our social sciences apart from the fact that … I was telling my friend, Azmil, that there seems to be like a gap. There were people like Syed Husin, Noraini, Loh Kok Wah, Cecilia, etc. And then there’s younger generation. The middle generation has disappeared. In the sense that you were not trained by that group. So you wonder what happen to them. I think there was a period when both Malays and non-Malays were just leaving academia for all kinds of reasons. It was faster track to get out of academia in terms of pay packages, to rise up etc. Some of them ended up doing very good work outside of academia. A lot of non-Malays stopped coming too, they were top students and they knew there were problems in universities. I mean you couldn’t get promotion etc. So they left. What we need to do is actually to make sure that this continuity is recreated for the future. I think it’s a tough call and it doesn’t really need to be done via university. It can in fact be done outside of the university. In Penang, when you have academic discussions etc. You hardly go to USM to do this. You go to Penang Institute or NGOs nowadays. In KL you’re talking about Islam etc., for a long time you go to SIS, IRF, etc. You do it that way. Or for me, for a long long time, there was Aliran and there was actually PSSM. And I think the younger generation has to reinvestigate PSSM and has to rebuild that. It is so important an organisation. It links us all together. Whether you’re doing work in the university, or NGO, or individuals, PSSM is sort of like the younger people’s project. It used to be in the past, Syed Husin Ali was our leader, then after that was Rustam. He held the fort for a while. Then Ikmal Said, Ishak Shaari, then we have Rahman Embong. So you have to actually recreate that sort of academic network. That was PSSM. We used to publish a journal, called it Ilmu Masyarakat. We did it in both English and Malay. So you have to go back to that. And we held the most exciting annual talks and by annual conferences. So you need a centre. The government the centre, so the individuals must rebuild that.

NM: On that, what do you think the implication will be? If the very centres that are supposed to be so called at the forefront of research and cutting-edge analyses are not functioning or maybe dysfunctioning. And then it has been taken over by networks or groups outside of it. What do you think are the implications for this?

FL: That’s very unfortunate. But it’s not surprising. I spent 33 years in the place like USM and towards the end, I didn’t expect very much for USM to take the lead. Our motto is kami memimpin, but by that time tak memimpin apa-apa lagi lah. But what was important for me was that I had a base, and there were friends of mine inside and we were all doing things together. I think there are still opportunities within the institutions like university you tap into. They have money, outside you don’t have money. We used to do research together. Halim Said, Ikmal, myself, Richard… We went research together, and those were the loveliest research experiences. Then we came back and worked on articles. We became buddies forever. So you have to recreate the fun part of being social scientists as well.

NM: And then also scholar-activist.

FL: Yes, and we were all activists. But activism can be fun.

NM: Since we are speaking here, Penang has always–or at least people know Penang as the hub for intellectual progress, political movements. How do you see Penang’s role maybe in the past decades and right now?

FL: I think it is not so much Penang. The fact that there was a place like USM. And I think many of us who went through that USM experience actually gave colour as it were, and gave maybe the wrong impression that something is special about Penang. But I think yes, Penang… It’s a coincidence of different suggestions because Penang has had very good schools in the past. So people who went to St. Xavier, PFS, St. George’s, Al-Mashoor, etc. These people actually became outstanding individuals in their own right. So that’s one strand. But I think this thing about a more radical intellectual tradition has nothing to do with Penang as such. But I think in the context of Malaysia, what happened was that in the late 1970s, our staff association, the PKAPUSM, Persatuan Kakitangan Akademik dan Pentadbiran USM, we actually had a revolt. Because they tried to sack… They actually gave show cause letter to our president and secretary general. Their salaries were suspended. So the academic staffs then rallied behind that. Then we employed lawyers to defend them. Our lawyer was Haji Sulaiman. Then we used to come to negotiate with VC, we used to go in force, to accompany him to the entrance of VC office. And one of the demonstrations that we held to protest against this harassment of our president. Why were they in the first place cheated this way? Because we held a conference and subsequent to the conference, they gave a talk to the media and they talked about–sekarang di Malaysia ramai orang profesor kangkung. Tahap akademik dalam universiti semakin merosot. That’s what they talked about and so they were showed cause why you should not be suspended for in a sense for tarnishing university image. So we did that. And we had a demonstration which was the nicest thing. We drove in our cars around USM. The security was still have films about who was driving the cars etc. So we had that. But we were also a bunch of very vigorous academics. So the two sort of overlap over one another. And there was a sense of solidarity that pulled us together. And there was a period when you have people like Lim Teck Ghee was around before they all left. And the man who was playing our protector at the time was Kamal Salih. He was the deputy VC at that time. He and Tan Sri Musa had something going on, they didn’t agree with one another. So he provided like a sort of umbrella for us in USM, just like I think one should not forget the important role that prof Syed Husin Ali played in the 1970s that he provided an umbrella for us younger people to come out and speak out. I mean it’s very important to have that.

NM: Before we bring this conversation to end, if you were to name three books that have influenced you the most, what would they be?

FL: One of the books that I’ve always enjoyed was Wertheim’s book, East-West Parallels. So he made actually a lot of western social science intelligible for me. He’s a very small man, a prof of sociology and anthropology in Amsterdam. But i thought, for my generation, powerful man. Ben Anderson’s book. Not so much Imagined Community but actually his collection of essays-Spectre Of Comparison. So for me that’s very important too. The third book is also something that my own professor wrote, which is George Kahin, Nationalism and Revolution In Indonesia. It’s actually the thoroughness, meticulous in his footnoting and the way he conducted his research. I think in all three cases, maybe less Wertheim, but in Ben Anderson and George Kahin case, I learned the lesson that the most important at the end of the day is you must actually do ethnographic research. Because that’s first hand. Including by this, I also mean interviews. Observation and interview is very important. The second point is historical research is extremely important. Then you look at documents yourself. So that you don’t get accused of getting the subaltern speak, you know. So you actually go and see. So the interviews, ethnographic, and historical research. Their studies are full of this. And the lesson is not the theory that’s important but it’s actually getting the empirical research done correctly. And that stands for all time. So you look at the back of their book, like Ben Anderson’s on Bermuda revolution, it’s all data about who he interviewed and who they all are. So you want to debate him, you debate who he interviewed. There’s something there. You don’t debate about a theoretical perspective. For me, that’s actually futile.



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