Wai Liang Tham Header for SEA Dispatches "Research as Activism"

Research as Activism

In this episode, Bonnibel Rambatan and Wai Liang Tham will be talking about Research as Activism. But essentially, rather than simply applying a theoretical framework, this approach platforms marginalised voices, researching with people instead of researching people.


Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

In Southeast Asia, undisguised repression of media workers remains prevalent. Despite the fact that murders and arrests get a lot of attention, this focus is still cramped because it ignores the day-to-day challenges media workers face by highlighting only the most obvious cases of harm.

So, media freedom undoubtedly needs a holistic approach. This means immersing oneself in workers’ experiences: from the daily dynamics of their workplace to the precarious work, it all takes place in an environment of frequent repression and economic hardship.

With an increasingly hostile atmosphere towards media workers in Southeast Asia, New Naratif’s Media Freedom Insights publications try to better understand their life experiences. Media Freedom Insights is New Naratif’s collection of reports dedicated to the fight for media freedom in Southeast Asia. The series takes an approach that centres media workers at the heart of the region’s media landscape. The reports housed by the series cover a range of topics, from the challenges faced by media workers in Southeast Asia, to their aspirations for a freer media space, to potential pathways for collective action.

New Naratif’s current Media Freedom Insights series, titled “Engendering Media Freedom,” aims to showcase the gendered experiences of journalists in the region to understand the media ecosystem.

Illustration by Erin Dwi Azmi


Hello, everyone. So I’m the Freedom of Expression researcher with New Naratif Research Department. Our first research output as part of Media Freedom Insights Series Four has just dropped. One thing that we are going to try and aim for is to use research as a form of activism, and this is something that we can speak a little bit more about in this dispatches.

That is Wai Liang Tham, New Naratif’s Researcher, an editor and currently a literary scholar-in-training, with a particular interest in memory studies. He has been published in the Southeast Asian Review of English and co-curated the “Transpacific – An Asian-Canadian Literary Journey” exhibition. Wai Liang is the primary author of Series 4 of Media Freedom Insights that I briefly spoke about earlier.

The research is still ongoing, and since it tries to cover multiple countries, involve different genders, and generally be as representative as possible, we aren’t likely to get any conclusive results for maybe a year from now. In this episode, however, we’ll be talking about Research as Activism.

I’d mentioned this before, but essentially, rather than simply applying a theoretical framework, this approach platforms marginalised voices, researching with people instead of researching people. We’ll talk about the wider scope of this research as part of New Naratif’s Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Project, as well as this methodology and approach with Wai Liang.


What is Media Freedom Insights?

This is all very exciting, but let’s give the listeners a bit of introduction. What is actually Media Freedom Insights. Because New Naratif has this whole there’s a Media Freedom Network. There’s a Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Project.

There’s all of these things that New Naratif is doing. Could you give a bit of insight about the Media Freedom Insights itself and how it plays with the rest of the other Media Freedom initiatives that New Naratif is doing?

So I think how we can think about it is to consider the Media Freedom Project as more of a broad, overarching project that we’re all engaged in. And essentially it can be divided into two complementary aspects.

There’s the Media Freedom Network, as Bonni mentioned, that is very much concerned with connecting media workers from across the region. But what our Media Freedom Insights means to do is essentially to provide the raw insights from media workers across the region, some of which may hopefully be able to interplay with the work that’s being done by our Media Freedom Network. So I think rather than think about these as two separate initiatives working in silos, rather they interact very much with each other. So our findings can work in a virtual cycle, so they can inform directions in which the Media Freedom Network can go into.

And also if sites that come in from the Media Freedom Network’s own advocacy can circle back and suggest ways in which the Media Freedom Insights reports can be written, they might inform the way that we ask certain questions because we’ll be like, hey, so something new has turned up and it’s something that’s worth exploring further.

So that’s very much in a nutshell, how the Media Freedom Project, the insights and the network are related to each other. It might sound a bit complicated at first and it’s really quite a lot moving parts in practice, but I think we’ve been making it work so far. But as all things go, things are always a process.

Previous Media Freedom Insights Series

I’m going to come back to that later. But you did mention that it’s series four, publication one, because we have published a few others before, which is like Envisioning Media Freedom and Independence. That’s the first series, I believe.

And then Beyond the Absence of Killings and Arrests, we also did that and also a manifesto, Making the World We Want, which is series Three, I believe. Can you talk a bit more about these previous research and how your own research builds on top of these?

In many ways, when this Media Freedom Insights series first started, it went under a different name at a time, but we’re focusing more on streamlining the naming conventions, the branding, also to speak. So how this started out was series One and series Two were a qualitative and quantitative approach respectively. And what emerged during this time were a few key thematic areas that suggested ways in which future research could develop.

So as it turns out, in the manifesto that we’ve published, that’s series Three, so three key areas were identified and of course it would be quite a lot of work if we were to explore all of them all at once. So what we’ve done for series four and series four is meant to take place over the course of a year. And what this using is a chance to look into how the gendered experience of media.

So for, let’s say if you are a media worker of a marginalised gender or sexuality, we would be very interested in understanding how this interplays with your work in the media. But of course then we need to consider what exactly the media is. Because if we take the very broad approach to it, I think, let’s say Marshall McLuhan approach, then you could consider the media as anything from the radio, television, newspaper, roads, money, and that sort of thing. But we kind of have to narrow it down a little bit.

So at least for series four, we’re looking at how basically how gender plays out in news making. But news making itself is very broad. It’s a very broad term and we usually consider, let’s say, what we can think of as traditional print media. And of course there’s also TV, radio, we’re not forgetting news portals and perhaps other forms of making the news as well, such as, let’s say, documentary journalism.

So these would be areas in which we can consider further. Does that answer the question? I realised that you’re giving a lot of very broad, big picture insights. So I think we can slowly unpack that bit by bit.

Five Key Areas on Literature Review

Yeah, there’s a lot of threats to pursue over there. I’d like to just follow up on the last threat that you explored on media itself. It’s a very broad definition, right? So of course there’s like social media in general and independent media, quote unquote, like homeless media and all of these things. And then when we talk about media freedom, obviously there’s a lot of spectrums in the media itself. There’s not even talking about pro government or anti government media or critical media and stuff like that.

But also, again, social media, propaganda media and all of these things, it just gets really very muddy. And also when you talk about media freedom itself, there’s the whole again, we’ve discussed this in the previous research with Me. We could just go over this a little bit more, which is we talked about direct threats from the governments, from authorities. But then also we can talk about representation, we can talk about algorithms, we can talk about all of these things.

How would you personally and in your research narrow down all of these?

So what we did during the literature review was that we basically went through various the usual things when people think of media freedoms or working within. How people work when there’s state repression. But of course state repression is by no means the only constraint facing media workers because it could be something as everyday and mundaneness, right?

Can I afford to keep working in this job? Do I get paid enough? Will my job survive until the end of the month? So those are the more quotidian, everyday concerns that the media workers do need to they do they do need to face.

So what we tried to do is we outlined a few key thematic areas that we thought might provide room for further analysis. If you don’t mind, then I could go over those five areas that we’ve outlined. Would that be all right?

Yeah, please do.

Okay, great. So we’ve divided our literature review into five key areas. And of those key areas, then what we plan to do is ask questions. We are basically taking a qualitative approach. So we’ll just be speaking to our research participants about what we can consider these some key sub teams and how these are all and how basically taking a look through a gendered lens is essentially the framework, the main framework.

But we can explore this further through these areas. So they’re very broad. And I think maybe a word of warning from ourselves is because it’s an ongoing process, so we don’t actually have any idea about what kind of insights will emerge just yet.

But the first area looking into is systemic and structural factors, and the second one would be working lives, namely the working experiences of those media workers in general. And of course, we’re very much interested in representations.

Representation can be seen in, again, different senses, like, is there enough diversity in terms of the workforce, but also what kind of media representations emerge through the various media texts? What are they constructing? Who are they constructing it for? And of course, whether this may lead to any salient effects, let’s say, like in public opinion itself.

Another area is education and journalism training because, of course, you really just don’t come into in many ways, there are many routes into media work, but how are you training it with enough are you provided with enough support, the right skill set? And also, very importantly, how are you being taught to tell stories in that story?

And also this one will tie back to your interest into algorithms because we are very interested in digital transformations. Again, because the media landscape evolves very quickly. It evolves very quickly. And of course, digitisation, digitalisation, these are areas where we would really need to consider in further detail.

So, yeah, those are the five key sub teams that we have right now. And again, as I mentioned, what we’re going to do is while we keep our interviews semi structured, what we want to do is use these interviews to eventually circle back to these key sub teams to see what kind of insights may emerge.

Again, some of them, they may yield more insightful responses and others may turn out to be dead ends. But I think that I don’t want to say the beauty of research, but I know the part of it is it’s really how research works? Because on the surface, if you look at a research paper, it all seems very tidy. Again, it proceeds in very tidy steps and the assumption that you get from the outside is like hey, they had a good idea going in and it all played out very perfectly.

But I think in the messy reality of it is that you kind of go back and forth. There are some areas that work out, some other areas don’t work out and it’s a matter of representing it, of narrating how you came to these findings in a more or less coherent fashion.

Although I think the one thing that we’re also very much cognisant of is that because we can’t mimetically represent reality because it’s always very much filtered through our own subjective opinions and subjective approaches. So that’s why we talk very much about we problem like objectivity very much in this sense.

And it may be more honest for us to be very openly subjective about our work because at least once we’ve staked out the position then because we’re not merely making a pretense to be “traditionally objective” in this sense. I think I probably should stop here for now because I think we might need to unpack a few of these discussions a bit further.

Why Gender?

We will definitely unpack a lot of those further down the line, not down the line very soon. But before that, I just wanted to ask why gender? What is your interest and why the focus on gender? Because obviously there’s a lot more to go about it.

If you want to talk about personal experiences, there’s lots of factors like socioeconomic class and race and other things. But you chose specifically gender.

Can you talk a bit more about that?

That’s definitely something that we can do. So when it comes to talking about gendered and marginalised experiences, this was one of those key areas that emerged one of those key areas, again, that emerged during the and you can see that in the manifesto, basically, there were three areas altogether, but it might seem like gender would have been a fairly good place to start with.

I think partly for the reason is that if it’s okay for me to go back a bit to our literature review and to look very much into the kind of discussions that are happening in academic circles, there’s very much the concern with what people have.

Some theories have described as the feminisation of media, or journalism more broadly. So the sense where as it turns out in this case, I just have to clarify that a lot of research is concerned with the male and female binary. So I’ll just have to stick with a convention, at least temporarily for the time being.

But the general idea when it comes to this, when people talk about the feminisation of media, is that. It’s not necessarily just that a higher proportion of female workers are entering a particular workforce in a particular area, but also that this goes hand in hand with how that area is being devalued.

So I think taking a broader view of, let’s say specifically journalism for now, again, it’s a sense that right, so there are, as it turns out, in some areas, significant numbers of female employees, for example. But also when you consider how the field itself is changing, it’s becoming a lot more precarious.

Your work can be outsourced, you can be retrenched taken back on as a freelancer and that sort of thing. So the whole idea of what people might say, quote unquote, feminisation of a particular workforce, it also ties very much back to how that workforce is being devalued. It is being made more precarious and also for this reason, it becomes a very rich area of analysis and a very urgent one as well. And also it provides a good form of a good front for us to perhaps engage in more activism along these lines.

And of course, because if we take a gendered approach more broadly,

We do need to platform more diverse areas because when it comes to the media, it’s traditionally been structured along a lot of values that have been seen as being more traditionally masculine.

I think we’re all quite familiar with the image of that kind of gonzo reporter image or car reporter, goes up fiercely into conflict zones and that sort of thing.

And also the car values that I espoused in the newsroom itself. And these are all very masculine traits that are very much entrenched within the media ecosystem. Does that answer the question? I know that’s a very long answer to your question.

Research as Activism

No, it’s fine. I mean, it gives a nice background and I think it’s a great segue into researchers, activists himself. I’m going to quote something that you wrote about research, about your method, which is like, we engage in research activism. We engage in research as activism. Instead of simply applying a theoretical framework, we are more interested in making this process emancipatory in the sense of getting marginalised voices heard. And if there’s a political outcome, so much the better.

So there’s a lot of elements here. The first is, of course, research as activism and then on top of applying theoretical framework, you have emancipatory processes and then that leads into making marginalised voices heard.

Obviously, all of these things are tied together in your approach, but can you elaborate more on this statement?

I mean, the easiest thing for us to do, of course, would be to platform those voices. So that’s why, like all our research participants, there will be someone of a marginalised gender or sexuality. So that’s the most key important step that we’re doing. We are hearing from them first and we are explaining their context, their situation, and of course, with the proper degree of confidentiality.

But what happens after this? So I think maybe we broaden out to maybe what I can think about is the emancipatory potential of it. I think we are aware that when it comes to producing research reports, it’s very easy to write a report and just put out there like, hey, we have done something, but we would like to do something more with it.

So that’s why we work very closely together with our Civic Participation Department in the Media Freedom Network to work out peer review sessions. We got people to come in and be like, hey, so this is what we found. Can you confirm that your experience feels like this? Or if you have something completely different that you’d like to share? And also, now that we’ve established all this, so what can we do next, actually?

We know that these problems exist, but how do we go about resolving those problems? So that’s what we hope to do within our peer review sessions. We hope to outline areas which can actually help media workers who are working on the ground, whether or not suggesting ways in which you can solve lobby for change at policy level or ways in which you can network at an informal level.

And these would, of course, be very different depending on the country context and the legislative frameworks and structures in which you are working under. So of course, what applies in Malaysia. Malaysia is my home region, by the way, may not necessarily apply in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand.

So it’s going to be a very long process. So it’s not just speaking to our research participants and writing an issue report, but after that, it’s also speaking to more people about the research and getting that research to go to bring it out of what we consider the I mean, as the academic ivory tower, but also finding research that’s produced by the think tank and NGO, for example.

You can produce things, but the question is, what do you do with those things once they are out there? This also very much has a political dimension to it, of course. And I think that’s something that we would hope to achieve in some shape or form.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of this can work out just yet. So that’s where we’re going to have to put in a lot of hard work from this point onwards. Yeah, that’s a little bit about up an elaboration on that front.

Research as Not Activism?

Okay, just to make things a little bit clearer here, that’s research as activism, right? You did mention a little bit because when we talk about political dimensions, all research has its political dimension, whether overtly or in a more covert manner.

What would you say research as not activism look like? How would you contrast this method with other methods?

Okay, this one is I suppose in this case, the obvious one is the kind of research that’s directed by companies towards profit making. That’s definitely not research as activism. But I think in many ways I feel like it’s also the argument that academic research is very much posed towards perpetuating broader systems that we live under.

I know that one argument that’s been made before is that the university functions as going back to Adam Smith’s concept of the invisible hand. The university functions as the invisible hand of the economy in many ways because it’s a site where ideas are generated, they’re tossed about and they kind of go on to inform other ways of kind of go on to solve like buttress the existing structures out there in a particular country in the world more broadly.

But also if we talk about, I guess, the passivity of research in many ways. And also we tie this back to conditions within academia where if you’re an academic, you’re expected to write, to produce, and you have to feed the machine because that’s the only way, in some cases, that’s the only way you can keep your job. You keep getting published, you hope to get cited.

But there’s just so much material out there and much of it it doesn’t get cited, it doesn’t get read. Some of it is not very well produced because it’s been cranked out as a bit of a mill, I suppose. And of course, then it goes back to the entire ecosystem of publishing whereby things are locked up behind paywalls. The interest of academic publishers is very much in financing themselves.

And let’s not get started on things such as the royalties paid up to the actual people who produce the knowledge in the first place. And of course, how academia itself is. I mean, for its pretenses to be egalitarian, it’s very much open and merit based. It’s very much structured along very hierarchical lines.

If there’s institution a global north, for example, automatically, then the research that comes out from it ties very much back to their own, like social, political, economic context in which they’re working in. Versus, let’s say if you’re an academic working from somewhere in Southeast Asia, maybe with the exception of Singapore, but if you’re working from anywhere else, then you’re already starting from a disadvantage.

So you are still conducting research, yes, but the research may not necessarily lead to any tangible changes and I think it is most destructive. Then it can go on to buttress interests that are inimical to that of the broader population. I think that’s what we can consider as research as not activism.

And I think Bonnie, in your case, would you have any insights to share from this or maybe to add on to this broader discussion? Because I feel like if we went into this we could spend a lot of time talking about very destructive structures within research.

Peer Review Process

Yeah, definitely, because that’s a great elaboration on research. It’s not activism. Also, there are people who do research and claim it as activism, claim it as like doing it for the marginalized people, but not platforming the marginalized voices, so speaking over them as simply research subjects.

I think there’s a very common problem in academia and outside of academia, for example, in journalism itself, in literature and all of these things. So I guess, yeah, if there’s anything specific that you’d like to dig from me, just feel free to ask questions. We can have this whole conversation.

But yeah, I totally agree about the whole university being more of a disciplinary institution, actually. Just cranking out stuff, cranking out certain research and which ones get approved, which ones get promoted if you’re in a certain institution. Because again, all of these things tie back together into structures that perpetuate the status quo.

Which I find one of the elements one of the things that I find very interesting in your research, Wai Liang, is that there’s this whole peer review process by the community instead of like purely academic, instead of like because you really make sure that the people that you are researching, you’re not researching them only, but you’re like working with them. You’re working alongside them to get their voices heard.

And you’re just pretty much the person who structure and systematise this instead of speaking over all of these people, which it’s really reflected in your research plan and your methodology, stuff like that.

So maybe you can talk more about that, about the whole process, about the community peer review, why you chose to why you chose to go down, why you chose to design the research that way.

Because you might have to I mean, you’re very well aware that why it takes a long time is that you might get new stuff like every every single time you might get contradictory voices. It’s going to be a lot more trouble on you.

Also to synthesise all these different voices in a way that feels representative and respectful. You might have to change things up at the end, stuff like that. So what are the troubles and why do you think you need to go through all of these troubles to get the research as activism part proper and correct, in your opinion there?

Okay, I think before I answer that, I have to start with a bit of a confession.

I think this is actually just based on my own background because after spending a lot and a lot of time in studies, then the only way I was actually really taught to consider the hallmark of proper research is that it must go through that academic peer review process at the end. Preferably things like double blind process, those kind of things.

But what I realised, I think what I’ve realised, and honestly, this is a very much a belated learning outcome is the peer review process is really just in many ways it’s a bit of a sham really, because there are all sorts of problematic issues with that. I think we may not be able to go too much into that.

But also when it comes to talking about, let’s say, a community and newsmakers, then the best people to hear from would be those people working on the ground themselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can stop. Like if there are any scholars who are interested in becoming a peer review process then they are very much welcome to be part of it as well.

But what we insist is there must be someone who is actually working on the ground who can come and sit down with us, look through the findings, the preliminary findings. These are not by no means the final findings just yet and tell us like hey, this area is not very accurately represented so you need to work out the wording for that.

And this, of course, comes with its own set of challenges. Because if we’re working across different regions, then that might mean that we will need to get translators in certain areas, because I’m very much limited by where I am, where I’m working from, what languages that I’m working in, and, by the way, languages another key area that we’re hoping to investigate further through our research.

And I think it’s about the process of trying to make this as representative as possible. We certainly do not know best ourselves because within our research department, none of us actually work in the media. So who are we to tell people like hey, this is the truth about what’s happening out there. So that’s why we do need to go back to the people who are actually on the ground, who are actually doing things, who are actually under those, who are under those restrictions and working under those repressive conditions both political and economic.

And it’ll be a long process. We’ll try and do it in person, try to do it online to see what facilitates the peer review sessions better. And of course, again and we try to reach out to as broad spectrum as possible and to basically have as many checks and balances as we can. Because I think one thing we are aware of is that there is a lot of authorial power in the written word, the written document.

Because I mean, on one hand it looks like, hey, it’s just like a bunch of words. But on the other hand, these are also things which can go on to inform how people craft, how policymakers craft their policies, how people consider, how people consider situations on the ground. They can get cited. And once you have introduced lots of discursive forms and these can have impacts on the real world or so to speak, which is why it goes back again to the issue of the power of the tax itself.

We have to make sure that what comes out. We are confident that we have done our best under those circumstances and that we have spoken to the people on the ground who can tell us whether or not we’re in the right track, or whether we’re proverbially barking up the wrong tree again, it’s going to be a very long, ongoing process.

We’ll try to have about if time and resources permit, we will try to have each of the subsequent reports that will be coming out between June of this year and December of this year as well. And if there’s any loose ends, then we’ll try and wrap them up in a final report that will come out by March of 2024.

But of course, if there’s any dissension disagreements, then we’ll make sure that those are very much reflected in our written documents. So make sure that all this is documented in some form or another. I think, if you don’t mind, I would like to go into this, I guess this is quite inspiring story actually, it just comes and comes from Malaysia as well.

So it comes from I think this was when James C. Scott was doing some field work in the state of Kedah. He was looking very much into forms of peasant resistance among the rural population in a small village. And what he did at the end was he soft invited his research participants back to talk about to go and look at his findings, to see what had emerged from them.

If I’m not mistaken, they actually had quite a few comments for him and he told him, like, right, this is not quite how it works. And he went back and corrected he had to go and make some corrections over there. And what struck me very much was how transparent that he appeared to be about this process where he acknowledged that this sort of like informal community peer review session actually went some way towards refining the insights further.

So I think that’s another thing with comment, then we might comment upon. So, New Naratif, we’re not really in a position where we’re like the undisputed authority, but how every bit of research is very much a coproduction. It goes back to, I think, our own terminology that we’re using because we are not talking to research informants because it implies a very extractive process, but research participants, because we are co participants in this kind of production of knowledge.

It’s a very small semantic shift, but nonetheless, a shift that I think is important for us to acknowledge, because I think, Bonni, as you alluded to earlier, the extractive quality of research itself is really very much problematic because we’re not just there, because it can be easier to tell people like, hey, we’re going to tell your story, and we’re doing good things for you.

But that implies a very hierarchical, top down position. So it’s also very much a question of how can you be fair to the people on the ground? Because you can take your stories, you manufactured least social, cultural capital out of it and what do they have? They just get cited. And where still these findings might be used against them. So those are all things to consider. They’re no easy questions. I think it’s a very complex field altogether.


Yeah. Do you have any worries about this particular approach, for example, obviously because we’re both pretty much on the same page here about what research itself should be doing to the rest of society, but what about the rest of academia, for example, or other institutions or the public at large? And have you had any pushback regarding how you’re conducting this?

Or maybe you should try to be more objective because you have all of these scare quotes here but like cultural capital that these people do not. And so you have this responsibility of shaping the narrative further perhaps.

Or maybe you have pushback in other direction that people who say that, hey, you’re still the one writing this. So it’s not purely about all of these negotiations are complicated to say the least, right. Have you heard any kind of pushback or criticisms or competing perspectives regarding this manner or do you expect to in the future?

Well, we did get quite a few suggestions during the initial preliminary research design phase. I think one example that I can give is we asked whether we could perhaps platform the voices of more male research participants, for example, just to give like a more rounded picture. But after some internal discussion, then we decided against it because the primary objective over here was to platform, again more of those, again more marginalised voices.

So I think that’s the one thing that I can think of. But it might also be a function we might not have had a lot of pushback primarily as a function that we I mean, we tend to talk to people within our circles and those tend to be dictated along the lines of we have similar values and similar interests.

And also I think the other factor matter that we have to be very blunt about is that we are working in the English language so that automatically stratifies us along certain lines within Southeast Asia. So we may be talking to people who may share similar values as us because we have been consuming similar material, we have been learning, brought up on similar content and that kind of thing.

We can only very much I think in many ways we are still stuck within a sliver of a broader society. So we need to find a way to but we need to find a way to break out from that broader structure. In this case, it’s a linguistic division. We need to find a way to go beyond that somehow.

And I think invariably there will be pushback, there will be some pushback, there will be further comments and things like that. But I think it’s all part of the process that we have to come to terms with and we would have to acknowledge we have not quite gotten to that stage yet. So I may have more insights to share, like one year down the road when things actually happen further.

So, yeah, for now, we’re really just embarking on the very first act of this. We have just embarked on the first act of this story. We have just put our things on the world and now we’re going to see what happens to it.

The Diversity of Voices

Yeah. Do you have any concerns about, I guess, guaranteeing the diversity of voices itself?

I mean, obviously you mentioned linguistics and the whole barrier to that and so on, but it’s quite common, for example, for people to self censor or for people to internalise certain bigotry and inferiority and just for them to refuse outright being interviewed or feel that, hey, this is just another research. I’m not going to be heard anyway. Why don’t this my superior male colleague or whatever, just take the stage and he will be able to tell you more information because a lot of those things happen, right, if we’re not careful.

I mean, obviously the way this research is framed already prevents that more extreme cases. The way this is approached has already, I believe, prevented the more overt cases of those things.

But do you have any kind of concerns or challenges about these issues? Maybe people are more self censoring, afraid to speak up about these things. Maybe they’re afraid to lose their jobs if they’re being honest while being interviewed, stuff like that.

How would you prevent that?

I don’t think it’s possible to prevent it completely because I feel like in the end, all the information that we receive is given entirely voluntarily. So we do try to emphasize that we’ll keep the data confidential, although we do have to record the interviews for just the prepared transcript afterwards. Then the original recordings will be deleted.

And the other thing that we have done is it seems to be working out so far is that we basically once we finish well, you see, because we actually finished the first draft of our preliminary analysis from latest Singapore and Brunei we have run them past the research participants to get their approval about how they have been represented.

And at that point, if they feel like there’s a bit too much information that might give them away, then they’re perfectly free to remove those sections entirely. So that’s one safeguard that we have and hopefully that encourages a bit more transparency, a bit more sharing. But I think when under no illusions that we are going to get the complete full picture in this sense. But I think what we can do is to try and build up trust that we’re not just going to present information outright without telling them how we are going to present it.

So there’s that extra precaution that we have when we go back and ask them like, hey, is this actually okay for you? Are you comfortable with the way that we are presenting this. And it does take quite a long time, actually, a lot of time, a lot of correspondence. And it turns out even the first three months of this year have just disappeared and like, wait, but I haven’t done anything yet.

So I think that all goes back towards that idea where you can engender greater, greater trust, perhaps more sharing, I think if you’re being sincere about how you go about things and to be very perfectly honest about all of that.

So, yeah, a lot of little checks and balances. I think we kind of I mean, we didn’t come up with this right from the start, so it’s not like we had this grand overarching plan from the beginning, like we are going to do this, but we kind of learned along the way, we’ve tailored and I think we’ve tried to fine tune and tailor it. So I think that’s why even the front method that just dropped a few not too long ago, that’s very much the tidy version of our research process.

In reality, there’s really a lot of back and forth, a lot of moving parts, and a lot of ideas that just kind of spontaneously came to us. And in hindsight, we’re like, wait a second, why did we not think of this earlier? So I think for us, it’s the main thing. The research process is a process. It goes back and forth and it’s very much built upon trust and how much you can share in that sort of thing.


Okay, yeah, it is a very complex and it needs to be an iterative process. It’s an ongoing process with lots of trial and error. I believe this hasn’t been done a lot by research, I mean, you can correct me if I’m wrong, you can tell me more about that later, but we’ve been talking so far about this research methodology and process and that has to do with knowledge production, right?

But then after that, obviously, we come to the challenges of how to distribute that knowledge and how people would consume that knowledge and later it connects back to the whole algorithm thing and so on.

But can you talk a bit more about after the research is done? After you’ve mentioned this earlier but after this knowledge, at least the earlier parts or this sequence, this series, series four has been produced, then how do you expect it to be distributed and consumed and then utilised in a more emancipatory manner and then political changes it might have.

What do you hope after this production? How do you hope to distribute it and what things do you hope to get out of it, essentially. What changes do you hope it will have?

Well, I guess distribution wise, then the one thing we have to do is we definitely have to translate it, that’s for sure. So there’s going to be an ongoing process. So we are kind of targeting translations into also into Bahasa, into the Thai language and into Burmese as well.

But of course then if it becomes a matter of how you can use this to affect change then it has to be a matter of maybe trying to present it to, let’s say, right, stakeholders. When you go back to when you go back think tanks policymakers and talk to them like hey, so this is what we found and do you want to act upon this? Of course, then there’s no guarantee that it can be taken up or not, but also because once a text is out there in the world, then it takes on a life of its own very much.

And we’re not very sure what can happen from here because we have very lofty, idealistic goals about, okay, we can use this and inform. I mean, it can inform, of course, like the Media Freedom Network. I see other obvious place it can go into, but beyond that we haven’t quite cracked it yet because it’s one thing you can put it up on the website, it’s free for everyone to access, but then do people actually access it or do people even know that it’s out there?

And also what makes this different from all the other reports that are being produced by other institutions, there are the databases that have more complete figures than we can hope to have. So it’s very much a matter of how we present it and how we present it and how it can help people within those immediate circle, within our immediate circles, whether it’s a small thing like an honorarium for their time or that’s the various leafs that we can do.

But we have to keep trying to think of ways in which we can further disseminate the information. And I mean, of course, when it comes out through new narratives, other outputs as well, they can take the form of comics, for example, or, I mean, it can come on social media in various formats, but of course, we have no guarantee that this can actually be acted upon.

And I think it’s going to be an ongoing conversation we can have within the team. How exactly we go about it. Now that we have the results, what do we do next? And I think there’s no easy way to answer it but I suppose we’ll just keep trying what we can under the circumstances.

On Going Conversation

Okay, what is your view on the state of the conversation right now? Not in terms of obviously not like the conversation among the team that we have amongst ourselves, but the conversation regarding this research, these issues, these topics. Because obviously there’s always a concern of preaching to the choir that people who will read this research are just people who are on the same page anyway from the beginning.

While we want people outside of the bubble, outside of the choir, so to speak, to actually read this and to actually gain new insights and maybe change how they change their policies. Maybe certain kinds of media would be more open and inclusive and platforming these voices and stuff like that. But yeah.

Do you think these conversations are happening both in the media and in the media landscape but also in the academia landscape? What do you think is the state of this conversation and the challenges that we still need to overcome?

Okay, this is going to be a very subjective answer. I don’t know. I feel that there are conversations happening in various years but they’re not really connecting to each other. So something might be happening in for example, there might be conversations happening in the Malay language media production or Chinese language media production, but because I’m not very privy to what happens in those fields so it’s very hard.

I think that’s the main challenge because in many ways, I mean, myself personally, I just do not always know what’s happening in a different area. So I think it’s hard to give an answer to this. But I suppose the one I guess suppose that’s an answer in itself because it feels like there’s very much a disconnect between different groups and what they are talking about. So it’s very hard to know exactly what the broad overall picture looks like.

But I think within the Malaysian media landscape there may be more conversations happening because there are a lot of groups that are doing excellent work all around, such as places like the center for Independent Journalism. And of course, there’s the broader push to form a Malaysian media council, which very much I think it’s very much in touch with these broader discussions that we will raise during our analysis.

It’s very much concerned with things like how much the role of the state, for example, in staying out of dictating what happens in the media. But I think also be very much concerned with the economic side of things and maybe the economic side is what we don’t think about so much because we focus very much on repression, censorship, legislation but there’s other things to consider like, okay, so how are we going to get paid? And things like that.

And I mean there are some further insights that are coming out into okay, so you can produce something, but it comes to your imagined audience, so to speak. In this case, are you censoring yourself based on what you imagine that the audience might react to? And these are all extremely complex areas that a lot of media scholars are looking into.

And I think what we can do is in many ways is we just take insights from the different I mean, like different literature that we’re reading, the different scholars speaking to and of course other research participants and what they see from the ground. So I think we just have to synthesise all of that.

I know I’ve gone off on a bit of attention I have to apologise for that. But yeah, I think that’s what I can share for now, we only have a partial knowledge of what’s going on in the world. We only see things from a certain position.

What Can the People Do?

Yeah, no, it’s fine. We can go off on tangents because it is like all of those things are related because things tend to get a lot more polarized, right? So that’s why it’s getting more and more difficult to actually have a proper conversation and to people who are different, who have different thoughts from us.

Because for example, if you take the issue of gender and then right away the first thing that people are going to ask is that is this trans exclusionary or is this trans inclusive, right? And then that just splits people into two camps. If you’re exclusionary, then it’s like the “gender criticals” that are on that camp. And then if you’re trans inclusionary, then people who are on that camp, who are more conservative are just not going to read it anyway. Which is fine, probably, but they’re not going to change the whole policies and stuff like that anyway.

So we need to empower the correct people to push for change in lots of different directions.

So I do agree that it is a very complicated landscape and it is getting more and more polarised. It is actually quite a genuine curiosity that I also personally have, which is how do you actually produce knowledge that makes a difference not only in terms of platforming and empowering people but also empowering these people to push for change and having discussions, having conversations that are productive, that are not, like, super toxic and just not these social media conversations, if we can even call them that, discussions, if we can even call them that.

It would be quite generous to actually name them discussions when it’s just threats of flame wars and people fighting against one another who don’t really have a vision for understanding, for mutual understanding. That’s the kind of landscape that we’re looking at.

Yeah. Now I’m going off on a tangent, but to go back to the topic, to go back to the issue here, how do you think I guess it’s a two part question, right?

How do you think the listeners can actually foster a lot more of these, of these vision of researchers activism, of actually platforming and empowering marginalised voices?

And more specifically, maybe if they’re from a marginalised group or if they’re an academic, maybe they’d like to discuss further or take part in your research or maybe draw from your research conclusions later down the line to maybe further to do their own research in a follow up thing. Maybe we can talk more about that, about people’s involvement if they’re really already sold in this, already sold in this research methodology.

Like, yeah, we’re on the same page, this is what I want to do. So what can they do?

Okay, I think maybe this is in the slides I feel my sales pitch where definitely welcoming feedback, comments, concerns true as part of community theory process so if you would like to sign up for it, you can always write to us and then we can figure out something that works for you as the listener. But of course as a listener then I think in a more broad general sense it’s very much about being I think about being critical about the types of media that you consume and also I don’t think we’re in a position to be prescriptive and to dictate how this can be done.

So it has to be very much I think it’s very much an organic learning process that people kind of as a listener that you have to figure out, you have to get used to on yourself. Because at the end of the day, at the end of the day, we are just another voice out there. And as a listener listening in then because you can’t really be sure that this is the only way to see things. Because there could be in our research like for example, other things that we have overlooked which may be remiss on our part.

But, yeah, I think if there are any young scholars, researchers, or academics who would be interested in talking to us about this process, I assume there must be other groups out there who are doing work that is similar. And, of course, there are very much a law scholar activists out there who have given out tips, resources, things that you can do if you want to conduct research and be engaged at the same time. But yeah, I think it’s maybe the one thing that we can immediately do is just be open to conversations and feedback and that’s all.

What’s Next?

Okay, so lastly, maybe you can tell us about what to expect from your research. I mean I know we’re very early in the game and we talk for quite a while about the methodology, about the vision and stuff like that and it’s going to take a while but we are at series four, publication one. So what’s coming next in publication two and three and four? I mean we discussed you did mention that earlier, but maybe just to give a listener kind of like a wrap up on what to expect there.

Okay, sure. Well the immediate one that’s hopefully coming up in June would be our focus on Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. I know at one point we definitely want to problematise using the nation state as, again a frame as a unit of analysis.

This is really done everywhere automatically. That just shows how automatically we defer back to the idea that there is a nation state.

There is a certain way of things that are done and structured within these but we also structured these interview our vicious participants into sort of like heat thematic areas. So we’re kind of linking up shared similarities in many ways between our, let’s say, like our participants from these three areas for historical in this case, largely our historical concern.

And then later down the line, we’ll be moving, speaking to participants from Indonesia and the Philippines if things go according to plan. So those insights should be out in maybe six months from now. And then after that, we really want to speak to other people in the rest of Southeast Asia. But I think that’s where our own limitations come in, because we are very much, in many ways, New Naratif is very much a maritime, Southeast Asian based institution and following. So we need to find more ways to work together with people who are doing work in the rest of the region.

And I know there’s a lot of groups that are doing amazing research work on their own who are based mostly in the mainland, such as the Manusia Foundation is one of them, whom we would like to point out, and I think that’s going to be us. And I think we will hope to see more insights in terms of live experiences on the ground across the rest of the region.

So I think that’s what to expect for the rest of this year and next year, we’ll have closing thoughts for any loose ends that we have not wrapped up. We’ll try and put them together and use those as a platform for a further jumping off point in which people can maybe conduct their own research or ask more questions or for the research team to take further from there.

And of course, this of course means and of course you can expect to see more stuff from a Media Freedom network because the network is very much the other part of the part of this process, how we put things into action.

I think that’s a bit of my wrap. That should be my wrap up, I think, on what to expect.

Okay, thank you so much. Wai Liang. That’s so interesting and it’s quite an exciting prospect. I can’t wait to actually read what you discover throughout the research process. And yeah, I’m looking forward and good luck to your research


And that wraps up our discussion with Wai Liang Tham. As we’ve mentioned, media freedom is an ongoing process, and Series 4, “Engendering Media Freedom”, will consist of three analyses published over the next three quarters, with concluding remarks to be published in February next year.

By that time, we hope to generate not only a very preliminary overview of different degrees of media freedom regionally but also to generate spaces for your own further research, discussion, and activism. If you’d like to become either a community peer reviewer or a research participant, feel free to reach out to Wai Liang Tham at [email protected].

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.


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