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Kuala Lumpur
4 October 2023 (Wednesday)

Social Analysis from the Bottom-up Approach: A Conversation with Diana Wong

NM: Good evening. We are here again on Naratif Malaysia podcast and video program. This is a podcast series where we discuss and speak to notable and experienced scholars within the fields of social sciences and also interdisciplinary studies in Malaysia and abroad. We are very grateful to have Dr Diana Wong with us, who is presently the dean of the graduate school in New Era College. She has studied in universities in Germany and Singapore in sociology and development studies. Also she has worked extensively in many places from Germany to US, in Singapore and Malaysia. Right now she is back and based in New Era College. Thank you very much Dr Diana Wong for being with us today.

Maybe if we could just have a casual conversation. I would like to ask you, in looking at recent events in Malaysia right now, there a lot of critical and big issues, maybe you could perhaps share with us and help us try to make sense of what’s happening now and what perhaps are the core issues or incidents or moments that we should try to understand and focus on.

DW: That’s a big question. And maybe your generation can speak more to that. I imagine that you are in your 30s, or late 20s. The future is yours. My generation is much older generation, and maybe not even the most important generation in terms of what is happening, what has happened, what does country stands for. What it could be. And what it should be. We think of the founder generation. That goes back a long way but of course one fundamental event was second world war. The end of Nazi ensuing end of empire, and the fight for independence. That generation had their dreams, vision of what it meant to have a Malaysian nation. And I think from the very beginning, and that is something that I think would help us to understand what just happened in this country and what is so important for this country–there were different notions of nation. I think that is very important to understand… And to accept that there were conflicting and different notions of nation–of what the nation should be. And I think that was one of the main problems that my generation perhaps failed to understand, and maybe succeeding generations also failed to understand and to appreciate. That there are these questions of nations-of-intents. There are different nations… From the very beginning, different nations of intent. And I think we understand too little about it.

NM: In your opinion, is it the same as before or have these questions become more, if I may use the word, polarising or has it become more intense in the way we try to grapple with and understand this question as compared to previous moment.

DW: Well there have interests in the different notions on nation or the imaginations of the nation. That is something that we have to keep an eye on as well, especially as a social scientist. It’s not just imaginary. Because the imaginary is important but there are shifts in the relation of power. A lot of this is associated… has to do with sources of power embedded in language. I think so little is understood of alternative or conflicting or different visions of the nations because they are very often, in our country, expressed in different languages.

NM: By languages you mean?

DW: Malay, Chinese, English, Tamil, etc. The diversity of the linguistic groups in the country. And the dominance of the English educated. Recently put. I think that has been part of the problem of social sciences as well. Social sciences have been expressed in Anglo-Saxon language–that’s language of the universities. Of course its been replaced to some extent by Malay, and that has become a more important language of expression for also imagination of nation. But there’s also a vibrant Chinese language community, speech community…

NM: That I suppose many people are not familiar and engaged …

DW: That’s right. I think this has been a dilemma that we just have not been able to overcome.

NM: Since that you mention in the social sciences. In your opinion, do you think the existing or maybe previous social sciences approaches are adequate or do we need to explore more different approaches to try to navigate and understand and even maybe as you put it to just even connect them together to have a more meaningful conversation. Would you say? Are there any?

DW: I think when you first started, i don’t know whether you mentioned it in your introduction but you were talking about–as far as social scientists concern–the need to reflect on theory, on praxis, on what we do. I think quite apart from theory; we have to think maybe… A problem of social scientist in Malaysia, I think, is the question/issue of methodology also. It seems to me that… That’s the difference between, if I’m probably, one major difference between my generation of social scientist and I’m talking about generation that was trained in 1970s–and maybe the succeeding generation, there was a vacuum of social scientists. And then maybe about 10 or 20 years ago, we were thrilled to see a new generation coming out, emerging. But maybe trained a bit differently. More theoretically informed than my generation… Because probably you were trained, or of course it was a different era, but you were trained in a more sophisticated department abroad. But my generation, I think, we were trained perhaps in a new Marxist tradition at that time in the 70s. But it was a different political, international configuration at that time. It was the cold war. And there was still issues of poverty. So my generation actually went into the field, so to speak. I mean I decided to do my PhD on the green revolution in a Malay village in Kedah. I actually spent a year in a village in Kedah. When i came back to the country in 1998, I tried to catch up on the work that have been done in the meantime on the peasantry, on the rural countryside in Malaysia. Nothing. Virtually nothing. And I think that is one of the major problems for us now as social scientists wanting to comment or thinking of commenting in a more profound and analytical manner on recent events in Malaysia. We don’t have the empirical base to really be able to analyse in a more profound way. What are the social forces behind shifts in the imaginary but as well as shifts in the power bases? The social bases/forces which underlie changes… Of course, there would have been changes from the dilemma of 1940s to 2020s… But definitely will have that. We recognise an enduring pattern. But what are the shifts? Why has the pattern endured? I’m afraid we need social science researches… empirical researches rather than just pronouncement by public intellectuals in order to understand. And I think that is there the question of methodology comes. Theory of course. But you see unfortunately just as my generation looked for mode of production in every little village or town or historical epoch, theoretical paradigms which developed based on postmodern / post-industrial societies are important and useful but they may not bring us very far too in understanding… And they may also divert our attention away from the field, from the empirical social research which has to be undertaken. I think for example of what is happening in the country side. For example, what do we know about the Malay working class in Klang Valley, what do we know of the Chinese working class which has in a way bifurcated I think but largely entered into the rank of lower middle class living in the 100 of tamans in the Klang Valley. No longer squatters. I mean they constituted the majority of squatters in 1950s and 60s. Both in the countryside as well as in the urban centres. You don’t see them anymore, what’s happened to them. How do they think. What about the Indian plantation labour force that are no longer part of Indian plantation labour force? We hear things like oh nowadays no more Chinese gangs all Indian gangs already. That’s what people say. But do we have a solid study of how people survived, how do these young men earn their livelihood today, and what is their cultural universe to which they belong as against to cultural universe to which Malay working class in Gombak for example belong, or the Chinese lower middle class say in Kepong.

NM: So that’s all very glaring gaps within our understanding of how… It is just not there…

DW: I don’t know. Would you know of any studies?

NM: I think I suppose they may exist but not maybe in a systematic or conscious way of trying the unnerve all these existing questions on the ground…

DW: Social forces on the ground. That’s what we are just talking about the lower class.

NM: That’s just one layer, area.

DW: The super-rich. What do we know about the super-rich? And how they are linked into the globalised elites. Transcontinental.

NM: Speaking of these researches and works, maybe we could go back a bit. If I can ask you, in your experience until now and your work, how do you see yourself or what kind of research has interest you or has always been something that you reflected on and on again and how have you seen these researches and works throughout different places you’ve been to and tried to study?

DW: I think for my generation, the imperative was how to cross bridges, how to cross barriers. And that’s why I did my PhD on a Malay village. I mean most of the academics in my time would have been urban creatures. Penang, born and bred; Singapore born and bred; KL born and bred. Mostly Penang born and bred. They were the best social scientists. So we had a lot to learn. It was a time when being part of… Growing up in cities was still not so typical. I think we had a lot to learn about the country.

NM: So you moved into… I think you mentioned about the green revolution. So you started off by studying the peasantry in Malay village in Kedah. Then and i think you’ve written on ethnic relations and gender. Has this been consistent?

DW: No. I think my first interest was in the countryside. And that was because I was Singapore bred. Then I did work on… Then I was in Germany. So there I did work… Somebody told me… I remember speaking to a senior academic friend and I wasn’t quite sure what to do next as a research topic. And she said to me, think about where the most marginalised people are. I was in Germany then. So I decided to do my next research project on refugees in Europe. At the time when refugees were still very much a problematic category… And then I came back to Singapore. And I did work… That was when my work on migration started, on refugees in Germany. And it was an eye opener for me because working on the peasantry, you think of people in place–you think of being sedentary, you think of being bound to the soil. Whereas when you work on migration, then I began to see everything was influx. People were moving about all the time, everywhere. That was what the world was about. Not just having your place in the world, but not having a place in the world.

NM: I can imagine even the research structure and method becomes even more fluid and very challenging…

DW: I suppose what it shows for many of us in the social sciences, what we do is really driven by our own need to understand ourselves. That’s part of the problem, part of the challenge of social science. I think one reason why we do social science. It’s not always a good thing, it can be very self-indulgent. But yes. So I at the moment… So i did some work on migrants and refugees… And in Malaysia, in SEA, it’s not so much refugees but labour migrants. So I did some work on labour migrants. That’s a moment I am the current research I’m doing was something quite different. Also related, there is a certain logic, and that is I’m doing a local history of Kepong. Kepong used to be a tin mine. Yap Ah Loy had couple of mines there. So it’s a classical tin and rubber economy kind of settlement. But what I’m trying to look at there is the long durée history of a Malaysian settlement. It started maybe in 1874, and we can follow it up to maybe 2004. Over a 100 years. As much as possible because there’s not much material available. But a long durée local history of a migrant community that settles down. So when we think of migration, we think always of the move. People on the move. But people actually also settle down.

NM: And that’s a very strong characteristic of Malaysian…

DW: That’s very much a part of Malaysian history. How we began… Almost all of us began as migrants and settled down.

NM: You’ve done a broad range of research… Starting off the research in village, peasant studies, to refugees, to migration to history. What helps you to draw link or is there a link at all if we can say. How do you reconcile these differences? Are there any connecting or linking themes or as you said search for meaning that binds all these different together and in so many different places?

DW: Personally it’s a search for meaning, obviously. I think, methodologically, I there is a theme running through what I have done. I begin to recognise it now. I don’t think I would’ve recognised it earlier. But a theme running through the work I did as a rookie social scientist in the village in Kedah till what I do today is the perspective from below via/through the lens of the household… Not just the individual but the individual in his family. Through the telling of… Well in peasant studies, the key concept was household economy. I suppose part of that generation we were taught, we actually had to go to a village and stay there and talk to the people. Engaging the masses…. Well you can engage with the masses. It’s not so easy to engage with the masses. It’s terribly difficult for me to learn how to talk to villagers. I grew up in Singapore, I was so shy, I was so afraid of doing things wrong, then having to go out of your comfort zone, forcing yourself to face the challenge of overcoming your own insecurities and fear of rejection, I was very afraid of being rejected, I thought my god these people are so nice and I’m just a horrible person from the city. You know. No manners, nothing. That is the constant fear in doing social science research on the ground. But having gone through doing that in Malaysia, in a way as a foreigner, doing refugee research in Germany–I did three communities ie Iranian, Ethiopian and Afghan. Again, in a way, as stranger and foreigner. But that was good because we were both foreigners. And now doing research in Kepong. Like a foreigner, I don’t speak Chinese. I have to learn to speak Chinese, my Chinese is still horrible. And language again. At each step of the way there has been the language. But at each step of the way, I’ve realised–especially as I’ve matured as an academic and as I learn to read academic text, theoretical text as well, from perspective that I have now acquired through my own research, I realise that this speaking to the people, doing research from the bottom up, and seeing the macro context from the view from below. It makes a hell of lot of difference, both theoretically as well in terms of theoretical outcomes. It’s not just a history now. You look at the way history has been written on Malaysia. Economic history has been divided essentially into sectors–we have history of rubber, tin, rice cultivators. That’s the way economic history has been written. Then now we have corporate sector–history of corporate sector. But they are all macro level data, and they are written with the help of documentation, very often company record, or archival materials. Which are colonial authority records. Of how the people below have been governed. You look at the list of the new village. Completely based on government documents.

NM: That itself is a challenge as well. Because then your research conforms to a certain structure that has already been there. So if you do a history, say, tin min it perpetuates historical colonial structures. I suppose there’s a need to break this. I suppose this is where innovation or even cross disciplinary projects come in to try to connect dots that were previously not there. And maybe… I find it very interesting that doing research in so many places not only require interdisciplinary but also comparative perspective that transcends countries, borders, societies… And even borders we could say an artificial concept. Has that benefited you or how have they informed your research? Is it very pronounced…?

DW: I think the comparative angle has been very important for the way I look at things. It helps me a lot to clarify analytical issues. That is very important. So that is one of another problem for my generation at the time. It may not be the same for your generation. When we started out as social scientists, we were always encouraged to do our PhD on our own countries. Which is what I did. Except fortunately it was my country but it was not so familiar to me. So I suppose I went through that challenge and then experience of trying to cross border. And it has become even more important at this moment.

NM: Now that you mentioned it reminds us of all these issues of migration which are still very big issues in Europe right now. And more often than now, I think the noise and anger drowns out reasons and rationality to try to understand these issues which makes it very important.

DW: But the point that I really think ought to be made is… Reason and rationality are easy words to use. I think what we need are also facts on the ground. At the moment I think social scientists have largely abrogated that responsibility and passed it on to journalists. So we don’t really have the knowledge of the ground.

NM: So we don’t actually know what’s actually happening. So we haven’t even arrived at the stage of analysis yet when we don’t actually know what we have. That’s a big problem.

DW: Yes. That’s what I see as a big problem. That’s my pet peeve at the moment.

NM: Going off from there, in moving forward–at least from now–what do you think are the big challenges or critical areas that we should really look at and try to have a more inclusive and critical discussion. What would you think?

DW: Maybe let me just give a final statement to what we were just talking about. That’s why I think the social sciences are important. The social sciences properly practiced is absolutely necessary to the project of tolerance, nation building, and to the project of cosmopolitanism, of world building. But it must be a social science… It’s because it has to be understood as a set of ethical practices or professional practices. I think that’s very important. A professional practice but also as a set of ethical practices. And in this combination, and only in this combination, not merely ethical practices–I think the professional practices are critical to social sciences as well. It should not be seen as something that weak students do because they can’t do any other–go into any other discipline. It should be seen as a set of professional practices in conjunction with a set of ethical practices. Because I think many social scientists do it for meaning in their own lives. That’s why it has to be a set of ethical practices as well. That’s where the ethical commitment, imperative comes from. And honesty. But the professional practices are critical as well because it is, we claimed after all that it should be a science… We know that… But still, there must be a set of technical practices. I mean when you do a recording, you have a set of knowledge which have to be adhere to for the production of excellence. So I think professional practices as well as ethical practices would define the social science, or some social sciences that is of critical importance today, still. Even more today. To our country and to the world. Going forward, I think maybe that is perhaps the first thing that we have to make clear. That the social sciences are not something that only C-class students go to. To break the stereotype, then we can only do it through our own practice. That’s the challenge for the social sciences. Especially in our country.

NM: The field and profession. And I foresee with these challenges especially economic, it would face many more problems going forward in having financial allocations and attention. I think it would be even more contested which unfortunately we have to grapple with and go through.

DW: The thing is we don’t really much money to do good social sciences. That’s what i found working in Malaysia. If you are foreign scholar, you need your air fare, big project money. But the thing about working as a social scientist and doing serious research as a social scientist in Malaysia is that you actually get the best of both worlds. On the one hand you are in home country, sitting in your own garden and then go for interview one hour later… you’re not sweating it out in some god forsaken place in Kalimantan or something from which you cannot escape. On the other hand, the diversity of lifeworld in Malaysia means that you can expose yourself to that challenge of trying to understand the other–locally. And it doesn’t cost very much. We really don’t need very much money to do serious scholarship in Malaysia. And maybe that’s something that we should also make clear as a professional exhume in Malaysia. We don’t need to go that route of applying for grant. It cost a lot of time and effort. Whether its government consultancy, or international third party ground or Rockefeller foundation or ford…it’s always just for two or three years you are writing. You spend the first half year just getting a team together, and then you spend the last half year writing your report. We probably do not have to go that route to do serious scholarship. And honest scholarship in this country.

NM: I think the idea of getting more awareness and maybe active participation from people to at least get up and pay more attention to issues.

DW: Those ideas are to get people excited about doing social sciences. It’s great. You learn about yourself, you learn about your country, and you don’t even need very much money to do that. The idea is to have a view from below, I think that’s a very important thing. Even myself we keep re-finding ourselves. To wrap, it suddenly rings in my mind when you mentioned your colleague reminded you as who are the marginalised groups. I think we can all use that as a reminder and to know that social sciences is not only for personal understanding and also as an employment. But also, something which is more and bigger than that.

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