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Interview with Mark Richard Thompson »

City University of Hong Kong

What are your favorite things?

Research
It’s the greatest luxury of the profession – to be given time and resources to try to find answers to questions that interest us.

Teaching
To interact with students and attempt to interest them in the subject while encouraging them to develop critical thinking is very satisfying (although often a bit frustrating when one falls short!).

Writing
At least when I’m “in the flow” (although I often face writers’ block at the key board while starting an article or book manuscript). While sometimes a painful process, I find it is the only way to think (at least somewhat) clearly.

Interview


Democratic Backsliding, Opposition Pushback and Political Cycles in Philippine History


01

Please tell us about your research.

My undergraduate roommate at Brown University was Filipino and he encouraged me to study in the Philippines which I did by enrolling in a master’s program at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman courtesy of Rotary Foundation Scholarship. It was just after the Aquino assassination and shortly before the fall of Marcos, Sr. – needless to say a very interesting time politically! Besides political science, I also studied Filipino (and German) at UP, took an intermediate Filipino course at the University of Hawaii and returned to the Philippines for two more years of fieldwork (where I was affiliated with the Ateneo de Manila Institute of Philippine Culture). This was the basis for my dissertation which was later published as a book, The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalist Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines (Yale 1995).

I then did what I assumed would be something completely different by moving to Germany. But the Wall fell there soon after which led me to switch my research focus and write about the East German uprising. I stretched my friends/colleagues’ credulity with the idea that despite all cultural, historical, and socio-economic differences, the uprisings of Eastern Europe resembled in significant ways, as political events, Philippine “people power” and other such peaceful protests in Asia (which led to the publication of another book, Democratic Revolutions: Asia and Eastern Europe, Routledge 2004).

I then became increasingly interested in Singapore where I was a Lee Kong Chian distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore in 2008. I had earlier written about the “Asian values” discourse of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), but became focused on how mainland China after Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” and until Xi Jinping consolidated power saw the city state as an ideological and policy model, however implausible that may seem. This led to a series of co-authored articles and a co-edited volume (China’s ‘Singapore Model’ and Authoritarian Learning, Routledge 2020) and also a single authored book, Authoritarian Modernism in East Asia (Palgrave 2019) which discussed how Singapore (and before that Japan) had served as a model for regimes in the region attempting to rapidly develop their economies while remaining resilient against democratizing pressures.

I began to do research on Philippine politics again during the presidency of Joseph Estrada – a self-styled pro-poor populist who sidelined “liberal reformists” stressing “good governance” often seen as out-of-touch with the plight of the economically disadvantaged. I also became interested in “hyper-presidentialism” in the Philippines and co-edited a book Presidentialism in Southeast and East Asia (Routledge 2023). I have written about Estrada’s overthrow, how his would-be successor and even better-known movie star turned politician, Fernando Poe, Jr., was cheated in the 2004 presidential election, and how former vice president Jejomar Binay’s presidential bid in 2016 was torpedoed by a selective senate investigation. Duterte’s dark politics of the bloody “war on drugs” filled this populist vacuum.

My most recent book, The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding (Cambridge 2023) attempts to put Duterte’s rise and rule in historical perspective. I am developing this line of thinking at CSEAS by examining how historical interpretations have influenced paradigms of contemporary Philippine politics. Pointing to the limitations of culturalist continuity or path dependent perspectives, I stress how in recurrent patterns of “political time” aggrandizing presidents have alternated with elite-led “democratic crusades” for nearly a century. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s landslide victory in the 2022 presidential election with a campaign invoking nostalgia for his father’s authoritarian rule can be viewed as part of this cycling as a counter-narrative of a developmental “golden age” after Marcos, Sr. declared martial law in 1972 rule eclipsed the tale of how EDSA “people power” uprising in 1986 “miraculously” freed Filipinos from dictatorship.


02

Can you share with us an episode about any influential people, things, and places you have encountered whilst doing your research?

As interviews have always been crucial to my fieldwork, briefly meeting Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. at a Rotary Club event and then prime minister and leading technocrat Cesar Virata while he was campaigning for a seat in the Batasang Pambana legislature were memorable moments as a UP student (alongside the several protests I attended when activist classmates invited me along). I later had the opportunity to interview Cory Aquino (who proved very reluctant to talk about her presidency and political legacy, very unlike Poland’s former president Lech Walesa who I had interviewed a few weeks previously). I also had a long interview with Joseph Estrada, who, styling himself as “mayor-president” (then Manila mayor), lived up to his reputation as one of the most colorful figures in Philippine politics. As a UP student, the Rotary Club meetings I was expected to attend as a beneficiary of a foundation scholarship proved to be far from the boring business gatherings I had feared, with often fiery speeches by leading business oppositionists invited by the club who had grown weary of the authoritarian president amidst an economic meltdown. These experiences ultimately led me to decide to focus my dissertation research on the opposition to Marcos, something which I have in sense recently returned to with my interest in pushback against autorcratization in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.


03

How do you overcome the difficulties in putting together the results of your research into a research paper or book?

This is a real challenge and even potentially a trap – I came back from two years of dissertation fieldwork in the Philippines with a huge number of books, newspaper clippings, unpublished materials, and interview notes which I spent months transferring to index cards (in those primitive pre-digitized days!). Drowning in material, it took me seemingly forever to write the first chapter of my dissertation. I thus advise PhD students to try to write a draft of their chapters based on secondary materials before they begin their fieldwork in order to figure out exactly what it is that requires further research and to order their thinking in at least a preliminary manner before becoming overwhelmed by the material they gather during their fieldwork.


04

Do you have any essential reads (books) that you can recommend to younger people?

Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant and the Making of the Modern World, 1965 – though an “oldie” still very much worth reading for its monumental effort to explain through (a perhaps somewhat overly rigid but highly stimulating) class analysis the major lineages of modern politics (liberal democratic, social revolutionary, and conservative reactionary).

James Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, 1976 – another “older” classic which provides keen insights into peasant movements in Southeast Asia and thus serves as an important counterpoint to typical analyses of “politics from above,” a perspective further developed in Scott’s subsequent books, such as Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, 1985.

Garry Rodan, Participation Without Democracy: Containing Conflict in Southeast Asia, 2018 – a path-breaking book by a theoretically minded political economist who drew on years of fieldwork in Singapore but also the Philippines and Malaysia to develop an innovative framework to explain the apparent paradox of how expanded political participation sometimes constrains contestation rather than enhancing it.

John Sidel, Republicanism, Communism, Islam: Cosmopolitan Origins of Revolution in Southeast Asia, 2021 – an extraordinary achievement which combines careful historical studies which stretch far beyond national borders with conceptual clarity to illuminate the origins of revolutions Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam

Alfred McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, 2009 – a magisterial work which identifies lineages of U.S. counter-insurgency strategies in the Philippines during the colonial and Cold War eras.

Leloy Claudio, Taming People’s Power: The EDSA Revolutions and their Contradictions, 2013 – this book brilliantly captures the ambiguous legacy of “people power” (once) the foundational event of contemporary Philippine politics by distinguishing several “discursive formations” about it (the official, “yellow” narrative, the anti-people power “National Democratic” discourse of the communist left and the subaltern perspective of farm laborers).

Caroline Hau, Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture, 2017 – a book brimming with keen insights and innovative ideas drawn largely from literary sources but from which social scientists focused on the Philippines can learn much.


05

What are your future ambitions as a scholar?

To try to bring together my previous research, which has often involved case studies based on fieldwork, in an attempt to offer broader perspectives of the region.


06

Why do you choose CSEAS, or what is your expectation here?

Besides the opportunity to discuss with colleagues (some of whom I have known for many years) about my research project, my time as CSEAS will also be a chance to learn more about the center from which I hope to be able to draw lessons for CityU’s Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC). I also aim to strengthen SEARC’s connections with CSEAS and other Southeast Asia centers in the region through the Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies in Asia (SEASIA).

 (January 2024)

Mark Richard Thompson is chair professor of political science in the Department of Public and International Affairs, as well as director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. His books include The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding (Cambridge, 2023), Presidentialism and Democracy in Southeast and East Asia (co-editor, Routledge, 2023), China’s ‘Singapore Model’ and Authoritarian Learning (co-editor, Routledge, 2020), Authoritarian Modernism in East Asia (Palgrave, 2019), Routledge Handbook of the Contemporary Philippines (co-editor, 2018), Democratic Revolutions: Asia and Eastern Europe (Routledge, 2004) and The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalist Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines (Yale, 1995). A past president of the Hong Kong Political Science Association and the Asian Political and International Studies Association, he was Lee Kong Chian Distinguished Fellow for Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore (2008) and Stanford University (2009). He received a BA in religious studies from Brown University, a MA in social and political sciences from Cambridge University, and a PhD in political science with distinction from Yale University where he was mentored by Juan J. Linz and James C. Scott. Thompson is a Visiting Research Scholar of CSEAS from January to April 2024.


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