Institutions and Social Mobilization: The Chinese Education Movement in Malaysia

Abstract: Why do certain movements persist over a significant period of time while some do not? How do those that persist sustain themselves and overcome contraints over time, especially those imposed by non-liberal, democratic states? This thesis examines the persistence of a minority social movement, despite facing considerable constraints imposed by a majority-dominated state. Utilizing the Chinese education movement—arguably Malaysia’s longest-running social movement—as its case study, this thesis argues that both structural and relational institutions are crucial in a prolonged movement’s efforts to overcome constraints and sustain social mobilization in a non-liberal, democratic state. Two important players of this movement, the United Chinese School Committees’ Association (Dongzong) and the United Chinese Schoolteachers’ Association (Jiaozong) were established in the backdrop of Malayan nation formation stage during the 1950s. The movement started in opposition against the British colonial administration’s threats (and attempts) to marginalize Chinese vernacular schools in the national education system. Over the years, both Dongzong and Jiaozong have survived a host of challenges from many quarters, and have endured for six decades while many other movements have long since been disbanded. One significant factor behind such persistence has been the structured mobilization system that has effectively linked movement communities at the school, local, state and national levels. These strong links have been important for solidifying the movement’s organizational efforts in facing state-imposed constraints and suppression. The bottom-up democratic leadership selection system has also bolstered the legitimacy and the power of negotiation of the movement’s leaders in dealing with various states agencies. The thesis also examines the internal dynamic of the movement, one topic that has been downplayed by social movement studies. Using interviews and archives materials in Chinese, Malay and English, this thesis traces the dynamics of the agencies in mobilizing movement campaigns in the context of various opportunities and constraints affecting domestic contentious politics. The thesis highlights three factors that have been crucial to the movement’s endurance: inter-elite networking and brokerage in mediating the changing relationship between movement and state; the unique mobilization mechanisms in the form of movement working committees; and the role of the professional and full-time executive branch that has developed over time to fulfill the specific needs of the movement. To link the six-decade-old movement into contemporary Malaysian political context, the thesis illustrates the participation of the Chinese education movement activists in the community-based Damansara Save Our School movement in Selangor. This case study provides crucial discussions on the aforementioned themes, and articulates the conditions that induce different types of mobilization and processes of social change in the Chinese community in Malaysia.

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