Dr. Soon Chuan Yean
Senior Lecturer
School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)

Dr. Soon Chuan Yean
Senior Lecturer
Tel: 04 653 3345
Office: C13/007

Research interests:

The location of politics in culture, arts, and religion; politics from "below"; Philippine local politics; and Malaysian cultural politics.

Short bio:

Soon Chuan Yean was trained as political scientist for his Bachelor's degree and Master's degree. In his Doctoral's degree, he was exposed to area studies at Southeast Asian Studies Programme (now Department of Southeast Asian Studies, NUS), which provided him a multilayered and multidisciplinary lens of viewing politics. His research interests revolve around the location of political dynamics between culture, arts, and religion; politics from "below"; Philippine local politics; and Malaysian cultural politics. Raised in the urban setting for his whole life, the research in the village of the Philippines has provided him extensive knowledge about the political dynamics at rural area. More importantly, the experiences shaped his perspective in understanding the way in which people interact politically, socially, economically, and anthropologically. Since the completion of his doctoral dissertation, he has travelled extensively to the village to continue the journey of exposure and learning. He is now working on a project on the role of religion and politics among the rural folks in the Philippines. Having the privilege to have the exposure to a different society aside from his own, he is "borrowing" these experiences in the Philippines to understand his own homeland. His interest remains in the realm of cultural politics where arts (and religion) can be a tool for people to engage in politics.

Current research projects:

1. Politics and religion in the Philippines

Often we hear about the religious contestations involving the canonical differences, collision of different ritualistic performances, territorial clashes of religious sites, differing understanding and interpretation of religious worldviews, and many others. The conventional ways to understand the religious conflict derive from the view that the devotions to each respective worldviews are perceived with a unilateral manner of reading the religious text, blindly following the canonical text led by the hierarchy that pave the way to religious dominations and marginalization. We hardly understand the devotees’ views and to question the way in which they may have juxtaposed their interpretation with their respective exposures, their cultural backgrounds, and their political economy, other than to see the devotees as mere receptor of the texts production, passive readers, some are even seen as vulnerable to religious violence coined by the elites. Also, secularists argue that religion has subsumed to private realm especially when the nation-state is heading towards modernization. Anything that is religious is seen as individual encounters and micro, thus rarely affects or relates to societal concerns at the public sphere. In his recent publication, Robert W. Hefner argues that the analyses of the recent Asia’s religious resurgence neglect the “micro-and meso-passions of self, family, and neighborhood” and “…inner-worldly well being.” Hefner’s thesis argues that the seemingly micro-oriented issues which involve the emotion and spiritual encounters of the devotees have significant social impact that cannot be ignored. In line with this argument and rather than treating religion as a potential catalyst for irrational acts and as detachment from the society, I argue that religious practices do not confine within the individual sphere but actively and intensively visible in the public domain. The individuality of religious practices has always linked to society beyond self. Religion is participatory for the individual devotees to translate their personal experiences or “self” into the interpretation of the “reality” of the social world. As a result, the devotees shape their unique production of religio-socio-political discourse vis-à-vis modernity, neo-liberal capitalism, political cronyism and chaos. This is an ongoing research about the Evangelist devotees, a Christian Charismatic, in a lowland village in the City of Tanauan, Batangas province, the Philippines. The paper attempts to read the religious text, not the bible per se, but the songs of the churches to understand the way in which the religious guide – through popular religious songs – has been used among the devotees and to argue that popular religious text serves as an alternative discourse to interpret “reality” that integrates the self, the social world, and the sacred (‘ideal’ world) serving as resilient acts against the unfamiliar neo-liberal capitalism and the eventual political chaos that contributes to the worsening of economic underdevelopment. Another part of the research is to re-visit the patron-client framework as to whether or not the hierarchical relationship within the political realm is a familiar production of interaction in the practices of religion among Evangelist devotees.

2. Malaysia arts and activism

This is an ongoing study that places cultural politics as another “terrain” of politics in Malaysia society. Deriving from the observations of the ebbs and flows of political party in 1999, 2004, 2008 general election, this study argues that the “political” site of Malaysian society has expanded beyond party politics. The “terrain” of politics can be located in culture and arts, such as cartoon and arts performances by the artists, committed social actors and academicians. Their language of politics does not manifest into political ideologies or policies but construction of ideas, non-official histories, lives stories, and alternative citizenry. This “terrain” of politics has-been-formed within Malaysian society and it is made more critical and obvert in post 2008 Malaysia politics due to the “opening” of space for expression and also derive from the unexplored space of “politics” within Malaysian political studies.