Webinar on “Social Media, Activism, and Civil Society in Southeast Asia”

This webinar discussed the impacts of digital technologies and social media on traditional structures of power. Specific issues explored included the impact of digital media on migrant workers’ narratives in Singapore, how social media has affected grassroots labour movements in Myanmar, the use of social media by anarchist subcultures in Indonesia, and the question of academic freedom in Malaysia.

Social Media and Polarization in Southeast Asia

Thursday, 26 November 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar titled “Social Media, Activism, and Civil Society in Southeast Asia.” The webinar was the second session of a four-part series on “Social Media and Polarization in Southeast Asia.”

Moderated by Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong, Visiting Fellow of the Media, Technology and Society (MTS) Programme at ISEAS, the webinar presented the insights of Dr Nien Yuan Cheng (University of Sydney), Mr Hikmawan Saefullah (Padjadjaran University), Dr Hilary Oliva Faxon (University of California), and Dr Azly Rahman (independent author).

Dr Nien Yuan Cheng
Dr Nien Yuan Cheng’s presentation on “Social Media, Storytelling, and Migrant Workers in Singapore”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar started off with Dr Nien Yuan Cheng’s presentation on “Social Media, Storytelling, and Migrant Workers in Singapore.” She opened her presentation with Sohel’s Story, a viral video about a heart-warming story of friendship and kindness between a migrant worker (Sohel)  and a Singaporean man (Teh Hsin). The video depicts how Sohel was able to overcome his debt due to the continuous help of Teh Hsin, and how the two remain close friends even in the present. Dr Nien opined that this sort of narrative is part of Singapore’s new performance phenomenon she dubs as the “the Story-telling State,” essentially an act of global performativity undertaken by the state to remain legitimate in the global stage. Critically, Dr Nien highlighted several troubling aspects of such narratives. She elucidated how the narrative desensitised viewers to the structural issues that may have landed labourers in such situations in the first place, instead suggesting to viewers that empathy was able to solve such complex problems. She also highlighted the skewed power-dynamic in such videos, pointing out how migrant workers had little agency and intelligibility. Dr Nien ended off her presentation by raising examples of several advocacy groups and even migrant workers themselves, who have successfully appropriated the state’s storytelling methods to share their own stories. 

Mr Hikmawan Saefullah
Mr Hikmawan Saefullah’s presentation on the topic “Anarchism and Subcultural Resistance in Indonesia”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Hikmawan Saefullah spoke on the topic “Anarchism and Subcultural Resistance in Indonesia.” Deconstructing common understanding of anarchism as a political ideology leading to chaos, Mr Saefullah defined anarchism as a philosophy that opposed government due to the belief that humans operate best when “free of hierarchies, exploitation, and repression.” He provided a brief history of anarchist subcultures in Indonesia, and elucidated the rise and fall of anarchist groups since late colonial times. In particular, he explained how anarchist subcultures have flowered once again in the wake of the post-Suharto repressions via digital platforms. For instance, he elaborated on how anarchist groups have moved onto social media in order to spread their ideas, such as anarchist group “Kolektifa,” which has over 130000 followers on the social media platform of Instagram. Using such digital mediums, Kolektifa and other anarchist groups alike regularly inform their members and audiences by posting critiques about government policies, and even rally participation for protest movements against perceived government injustices, such as the recent Omnibus Law in 2020.

Dr Hilary Oliva Faxon
Dr Hilary Oliva Faxon’s presentation on “Beyond the Digital Divide: Studying Facebook in Myanmar”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The next panellist, Dr Hilary Oliva Faxon, spoke on the topic “Beyond the Digital Divide: Studying Facebook in Myanmar.” Opening her presentation with a study by ITR Corporation showing how access to mobile phones spiked after 2013, Dr Faxon opined that digital connection is now an integral part of Myanmar’s current political and economic transformation. In particular, she elaborated on how digital media has mediated these transformations for the rural communities in Myanmar. She highlighted the role of Facebook, which has successfully constructed itself as Myanmar’s national digital platform, in mobilising grassroots and land activists. For instance, she illuminated how Facebook provides a direct line of communication between locals and state agencies through the direct messaging function. The share function also allows activists to quickly disseminate information and mobilise individuals, while affording them limited protection from government agencies. Dr Faxon gave an example of how a Burmese cartoon featuring Saya San (leader of the Saya San Rebellion in the 1930s) which was widely circulated on Facebook, gained momentum as a platform to criticise the government’s lack of attention to rural and agricultural development in Myanmar.

Dr Azly Rahman
Dr Azly Rahman’s panel presentation on “The #BLM Issue and Academic Talibanism: Narratives on the Meaning of Education”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The final speaker, Dr Azly Rahman, shared his personal experiences in a panel presentation titled “The #BLM Issue and Academic Talibanism: Narratives on the Meaning of Education.” Introducing himself as an educator, author and columnist, Dr Rahman recounted his recent experience regarding “cancel-culture” and “academic Talibanism” when expressing his opinion on the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In May this year, as protests for the “Black Lives Matter” movement erupted followed the killing of a black man George Floyd by a police officer, Dr Azly took to Twitter to show support for its counter-movement, “All Lives Matter.” He shared that as a result of his actions, his appearance in an upcoming discussion about racism in Malaysia was cancelled by the publisher, Gerakbudaya, after several Twitter users flagged his Tweets supporting the “All Lives Matter” movement to Gerakbudaya. The cancellation, which was both abrupt and one-sided, came despite many previous collaborations between the two. He elaborated on how previous supporters of his work also came out to criticise him as his Tweets became more publicised. As a result of this experience, he was prompted to question academic freedom in Malaysia. He closed his presentation with thought-provoking questions to the audience, asking them to ponder deeply about how one should educate others, and opined that educators “should not teach people what to think, but how to think.”

During the Question and Answer segment, the audience engaged the panellists with various questions on how social media and digital platforms can change the nature of civil society in Southeast Asia. Several questions were also directed to specific presentations. For instance, there were questions on the organisational nature of anarchist subgroups, as well as queries on how rural communities in Myanmar were able to affect politics at a nation-level. The webinar closed with Mr Dien thanking the speakers and audience for their participation.  

The panel was moderated by Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)