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Reviewed by:
  • Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia
  • P. Ramasamy (bio)
Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia. By Meredith L. Weiss. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. Softcover: 324 pp.

Academic works on the role of the opposition in Malaysian politics are few and far between. Even if there is a limited number of works, they mostly prefer to focus either on the role of the opposition political parties or the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In fact there are hardly any systematic studies on Malaysian politics that seek to discuss opposition politics in terms of cooperation and coalition-building among the disparate opposition forces such as the NGOs, informal groups, and opposition political parties. In this respect, the recent publication of the above volume by Meredith Weiss is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of knowledge on Malaysian politics in general and opposition politics in particular.

The book seeks to examine and analyse how civil society agents cooperate with opposition political parties to bring about democratization of the Malaysian society. In a more specific sense, the book is mainly about the rise of the reformasi movement in Malaysia following the ouster of the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and how it sought to build and sustain coalition capital with a wide variety of civil society agents including the mainstream opposition political parties. At the theoretical level, the author argues that the trajectory of coalition capital between the different forces of the opposition cannot be established a priori. In the Malaysian context, it was the nature of democracy — illiberal democracy that broadly determined the space in which civil society agents and opposition political parties sought to bring about changes from a broader universalistic perspective.

The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the subject matter of investigation and lays out the broad conceptual parameters for the study. Chapters 3 and 4 provide the colonial context and the expansion of the civil society and political society between 1957 and 1997. Chapters 5 and 6 are about the genesis of the reformasi movement and its implications for Malaysian politics. Chapter 7 provides an overview on the reformasi era in Indonesia with the aim of relating it to the Malaysian experience. And finally, Chapter 8 concludes by providing theoretical and empirical insights about the formation and sustenance of coalition capital in Malaysia and how is it different from the Indonesian experience.

Weiss' study provides important insights into the nature of civil society agents, how they matured during the post-independence [End Page 346] periods, and how they manifested during the critical reformasi period in the 1990s. More importantly, by providing a detailed focus on the pro–Anwar Ibrahim reformasi movement, the author seeks to explain how the movement sought to move beyond communal politics and to what extent it was successful. The ultimate fusion of the movement into Parti Keadilan (Justice Party), its bridge-building endeavours resulting in the formation of the opposition coalition of Barisan Alternatif (BA), and it how it sought to challenge the hegemony of Barisan Nasional (BN) takes on an added importance in this study. Beyond the empirical, the study has theoretical and comparative significance. It tries to determine the conditions under which oppositional coalition politics take shape, the relationship of regime-type to the formation of coalition capital and the problems of sustaining coalition capital over a period of time. By bringing in the Indonesian case, the author seeks to drive home the point that the ultimate determining factor behind the success or failure of coalition capital would be the nature of the state.

Although this study has theoretical, comparative, and empirical significance, there are some obvious problems that need to be addressed. First, the use of the concept hegemony seems to be problematic in this study. It is not clear whether the author uses it to mean dominance through coercion or consensus, following the distinction provided by Gramsci. She says that "the government is not hegemonic; it leaves at least some space for both CSA's [civil society associations] and opposition parties" (p. 5). Well, if one argues from the...


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pp. 346-348
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