Cultural, historical and policy influences on youth activism in Malaysia

Abdul Rahim, Syafiqah (2020) Cultural, historical and policy influences on youth activism in Malaysia. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Due to Embargo and/or Third Party Copyright restrictions, this thesis is not available in this service.


This thesis investigates the complex relationships at work in youth activism. While much academic attention has been paid to the types of projects organised by youth activists, little is known of the nuanced and complex relationships between youth activists, youth organisations, communities, authorities and and other actors which surround these projects.
As a means by which to contribute to this under-researched area, this thesis presents the argument that attention should be paid by both policy makers and researchers to the cultural, historical, and power relationships underpinning young people’s agency as relating to their involvement in youth activism.

Central to this study is the complex relationship between activism and citizenship. This research found that young people’s activism in Malaysia is culturally perceived as a responsibility to give back to society. It entails the aspects of collective spirit, community-centred thinking and individual empowerment, all of which strongly connect to notions of citizenship. In youth organisations, most young people’s activism relates to their own interests, their social consciousness, and their vision of alternative futures (Pickard & Bessant, 2018; della Porta, 2019). There is an important need to study the cultural, historical and political aspects of the activities of young people in neoliberal settings in the Global South (Nilan & Feixa, 2006). In Malaysia, as elsewhere, the impact of neoliberalism has influenced the way individuals, communities, institutions and governments organise themselves (Harvey, 2007). Activism in these neoliberal settings presents a new opportunity to study the behaviour of young people and their organisations.

Using Activity Theory (Engeström, 1987) as a conceptual and analytical lens, this study identifies the interweaving elements in the activities of young people. The unit of analysis is the youth organisation as an “activity system”. These elements are: the youth organisations’ aims (object); the connected features of individual motives; personal preferences; relationships between members of the organisations (division of labour); their selection of activities (tools and artefacts) as influenced by the cultural and belief structure (rules and community); and the pressures of international neoliberalism on their activities (runaway objects). Analysis using the framework of Activity Theory (AT) illuminates contradictions between individuals, rules, community and division of labour in youth organisations that lead to selection of artefacts and tools in the activity system. This in spite of the fact that sometimes the tools and artefacts themselves are not fully in line with the object of the activity system. This research found that youth organisations mediate their positions and types of activity to solve conflict of motives and overlapping objects.

A Transformative Activist Stance (Stetsenko, 2008) is used to approach agency as transformative, where an individual is internally changing while making the changes in society, as the world is transforming simultaneously too. The agency of young people in youth organisations, expressed through their collaborative effort, is influenced by the structural elements of neoliberalism, and traditional elements of Malaysian culture. Existing research has not yet adequately addressed the motives, conflicts and contradictions, and the types of collaboration involved in youth activism.

This research analyses the motives, conflicts and contradictions, and types of collaboration activities of activists in youth organisations through the framework of AT. Of the 21 youth activists participating in this research, 14 were involved in semi structured interviews and seven participated in focus group discussions. Semi-structured interviews with 10 policy makers were used for observing the relation between activists and policy makers concerning the convergence and conflicts of their objects. Participant observations with members of selected youth organisations were conducted to understand the types of activities and collaborations taking place in the organisations.

The findings from this research reveal activists’ motives (their intentions and hopes of creating a better society), the types of emotions involved in youth organisations as spaces for young people, and the personal development of young people in terms of their learning and skills acquisition through collaborative and transformative activism. Several rules were uncovered with respect to how relationships were formed between the members of an organisation, and society’s perceptions of the functions of youth organisations. The research also identified the influence of institutional and cultural structures on the activities of youth organisations in Malaysia.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Youth activism, Activity Theory, youth organisations, Transformative Activist Stance, agency.
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
L Education > L Education (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Education > Social Justice Place and Lifelong Education
Supervisor's Name: Doyle, Dr Lesley and Lally, Professor Vic
Date of Award: 2020
Embargo Date: 19 October 2023
Depositing User: Syafiqah Abdul Rahim
Unique ID: glathesis:2020-81732
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 20 Oct 2020 11:18
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2020 11:18

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