Punks, Monks and Politics
Ani Mattila talks to Julian CH Lee and Marco Ferrarese for insights into their new book Punks, Monks and Politics: Authenticity in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Ani Mattila (AM): One of the main ideas addressed in the book is that of "authenticity". Why is authenticity an important concept to examine?
Julian CH Lee (JL): Authenticity is a concept which refers to an original or true entity or characteristic. In our book, it is especially used in relation to culture. It is problematic in social sciences because it is difficult – or more likely impossible – to identify an objectively original element of culture and therefore, on the one hand, it might seem like a topic to be avoided. However, we focus in our book on the discourses surrounding and the politicization of authenticity. As we show, the impacts that this has often been profound and has affected the lives of social groups we look at in the book.
AM: In Chapter One, there is an examination of metal fans in Malaysia ‘seeking authenticity through foreignness’. This seems like a contradiction…
Marco Ferrarese (MF): To me, they seek validation through participation in a global music world whose main production centers are located elsewhere. Too often metal and punk have been described as 'anti-hegemonic' forms of resistance, while in my opinion, they have mostly transformed into patterned forms of leisure that tend to be replicated elsewhere in the world regardless of local contexts. Following these foreign forms doesn’t at all contradict a sense of authenticity – it is central to it for Malaysian metal fans.
AM: Although cleaving to foreign forms is central to authenticity for metalheads, in Chapter Eleven, you explore feminism and feminists in Malaysia, where their ideas are criticised as inappropriately foreign, and therefore culturally inauthentic. How are these criticisms received by Malaysian feminists?
JL: These criticisms are common but one thing that feminists often do is point to the concrete inequalities and injustices faced by women, rather than the abstract concept of feminism. A further thing to realise is that the claims that feminists make don't always draw on ‘western feminism’, but often reference Islam, the majority religion in Malaysia. In interview material presented in this chapter, it is clear that they see no apparent contradiction between their work and ‘Malaysian culture’, and that in fact their efforts are often in service of some greater value that is said underpin Malaysian society and culture.
AM: The book focuses its case studies on three Southeast Asian nations. Why were Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand chosen?
JL: These nations are in region which has been at a number of crossroads of migration and trades over centuries and which therefore would be exposed to diverse cultural influences, which have made the explorations of issues of authenticity particularly fascinating. They also provide useful similarities and differences. While Malaysia and Indonesia share much in the way of language and religion, Thailand is religiously and linguistically very different, despite being so nearby.
MF: Usually, the Mekong region's nations and those of peninsular Southeast Asia have separate academic traditions.
JL: They also have very different histories with respect to colonialism, which could influence their contemporary reaction to foreign influences. I feel this selection of countries has worked really well in providing points of similarity and distinction which throw the differences in the politics and pursuit of authenticity usefully into relief.
MF: And I’d like to think that with this book, we have brought together a wider representation of forms of authenticity and identity construction in contemporary Southeast Asia.
Ani Mattila is a PhD candidate at RMI. She is associated with the Centre for Global Research.
Julian CH Lee is a Lecturer in Global Studies, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Australia.
Marco Ferrarese received his PhD from Monash University and writes for outlets including the BBC.