Analyzing South East Asian politics – Interview with Bridget Welsh

Interviewed by Syahirah Syed Jaafar, Transcribed by Levina Lim

During the 5th Malaysian Student Leaders Summit (MSLS) in July 2011, the Connectwork team interviewed Prof. Dr. Bridget Welsh, who was one of the 4 panelists for the Politics session.

Dr. Bridget Welsh is an Associate Professor in Political Science at Singapore Management University. She received her doctorate from the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, her MA from Columbia University, language training (FALCON) from Cornell University and BA from Colgate University. Amongst the numerous institutions she has taught and worked with are Hofstra University in New York, the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University, and Singapore Management University. Bridget is the former Chair of the Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Studies Group and a consultant to Freedom House.

Being a political analyst, we took the opportunity to learn more about what she does, her views and two pence worth on analyzing politics in South East Asia.

Q: How influential is your work in enacting change, in Malaysia or Southeast Asia?

Well, I’m a university educator. I used to teach in John Hopkins in Washington. Now, I teach in Singapore. My first role is to be a teacher. So this means my job is to inspire the young, to open them up to different skill sets and to be analytical. I specialize in South East Asian politics. But Malaysia is my primary focus because I grew up here. I went to high school in Kuala Lumpur and I see Malaysia as my home in many ways. I have a special fondness and love for what happens in Malaysia.

I think that as an educator my job is engage in public interaction. That means when you see things you write about them, speak about them, offer what you have in the form of analytical tools to interpret them. So, that is why I usually take my own money and on own time conduct research. I regularly go to by-elections and elections, I talk to Malaysians from all the different parts of the country. I’ve been really blessed by all the exchanges in some form, either I met through travel oand talking to people. It has been a real privilege to me to interact with Malaysians. Influential? I can’t say that – that is for other people to judge. For me, it’s about passion and understanding– what I can do for the country, and to be part of a dialogue – that is very important.

Q: Is it a challenge to stay neutral when analyzing political events in Southeast Asia?

We (scholars) look at many democracies, from the United States to Thailand. We even study the context of Singapore where their elections were quite polarized. In any contest for political power, you have people on both sides, and I think that there’s a sense that for those people on one side or the other, the person is never neutral. In one party coalition states such as Malaysia, there’s a tendency to be highly polarized, to adopt the with us or against mentality. If you raise questions or or pointing out problems you actually are challenging the status quo, And I think one can say that this is also true for the opposition when issues are raised about them. I think I’ve probably got the most negative email when I wrote a very tough article on Pakatan’s performance in Hulu Selangor, where I said that they have not performed properly. Neither side likes to be questioned.

I think my job is not about pleasing people. A scholar’s job is about trying to do the best one can do to analyze issues and to raise questions. In my view, I try very hard to meet all sides, and to speak to the issues of both sides.  But I also think that you make decisions based on how you frame issues, and what issues you raise. I think that when you have a certain degree of commitment to some of the issues, you’re not going to always agree with everyone. Given the context, I think that there is no real neutrality. And in some ways, there shouldn’t be.

What is important is not neutrality. What is important is good analysis that respects all sides, and incorporates different points of view. And I think that is what I’m trying to do by raising different types of issues.

Q: You’ve edited quite the number of Malaysian publications.  Tell us what are your reflections on print publication as compared to what you have observed in real life. Is it as transparent as you hope it to be?

I think they both serve their purpose. As a society, Malaysians tend not to read print publications compared to a place like Burma, where they read everything available, or even in parts of Europe. Print publication speaks to a certain type of audience. And what’s good about them is that you can actually provide more data and resources. They have more depth, and hence they have their place. But I also think that I have engaged the online media, and writing for the public. It’s a different type of audience. I always get complaints that my articles are too long, but this is the nature of the thing.

I think now there is a place for different forms of publications and these appeal to different people at different times. For example when I teach, I use a lot of Youtube videos. I use movies, novels, articles and books that I assign to my students. When you engage the public, you have to use different type of publications. While I think that print publications provide better context, and more in depth analysis, shorter online pieces are useful. However, since not everyone is going to engage in a variety of forms, as an educator you have to use other ways to share your ideas.

Q:  Last but not least, what are your future plans and how long do you plan to stay in Malaysia?

It’s hard to say. Like in Malaysian politics, you can never predict the future in these contexts. But my future plan, at least for the short term, is to stay in Singapore. I was very fortunate when I negotiated my contract with Singapore, I only teach all my teaching in one term. So while it’s very heavy when I am teaching, I also have other time to do my writing and research. And I have learned a lot in Singapore, especially during the elections. But I have also learned from being based in the region and having the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.

So I plan, at least in the short term to stay here, and work with young people from Asia. And I spend a lot of time with people in Malaysia as well. To me this is inspiring. You have a chance to learn and to engage. If I did not have that particular opportunity, for me, I will feel a sense of loss. I would also say that the region of Asia is very dynamic. Economically and politically, there’s change. And if we take Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, profound transformations are taking place. There are crossovers between states moving in authoritarian directions to more democratic ones; more power to the people. So from a perspective of a researcher, it is very exciting. And that makes for a very dynamic engagement.

Syahirah Syed Jaafar is a law student at University of Reading. She is also the Outreach Director of CEKU and an editorial officer for Connectwork.

Levina Lim is studying at Edinburgh Napier University, and is CEKU’s Marketing Director.

*The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist and do not represent the views of CEKU or UKEC.

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