Iza Hussin is the Mohamed Noah Fellow at Pembroke College and University Senior Lecturer in Asian Politics at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority and the Making of the Muslim State (Chicago 2016) and articles on Islamic law in contemporary and colonial states, on law’s mobility and translations, and on the legacy of empire on gender and ethnicity in post-colonial states. She has held faculty positions at the National University of Singapore, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Chicago, and has been a Fellow in Islamic Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and Visiting Associate Professor at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. She is a recipient of awards from the American Political Science Association and the International Convention of Asia Scholars, and has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Social Science Research Council. She sits on the advisory and editorial boards of a number of international research centres and presses, and is Associate Editor of Modern Asian Studies.

Summary of Project:

Reasons of State: Making Sense in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia

This project explores the making of public reason and unreason in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, through the study of state explanations: of natural and political disasters, of plane crashes, of spectacular corruption, of national security catastrophes. Liberal institutional arrangements have provided spaces for the proliferation of public reasons; authoritarianism, inequality and ethnic divisions have structured spaces of distinction and secrecy within which these have flourished; generational and technological change allows for their spread and at the same time further highlights deep schisms between state and non-state rationalities. Yet political theory and social science research does not have an adequate conceptual or methodological apparatus with which to deal with the endurance of unreason in politics, and despite the everyday proliferation of unreason as a response to crisis in Southeast Asia – in corruption scandals, in security issues, in civil unrest and violence – we have yet to undertake comparative or concerted study of this question in any Southeast Asian state, nor of the networks that run between them.

State explanations through official outlets are often accompanied by social rumour and speculation; the often-startling inadequacy of state reasons for the failure of politicians, policy and institutions has become part and parcel of public discourse in Southeast Asia. The commonplace of this ‘state unreason’, however, flies in the face of liberal theoretical understandings of the functions of political communication, and of expectations of state aspirations to accountability and rationality. Using political ethnography, media and communications analysis, and data mining of domestic and regional web material in multiple languages, this project asks: what varieties of explanation do state outlets deploy, of what kinds of reason and unreason do these comprise, and what expectations of credulity and response do they contain? How do these reflect, feed or refract prevailing explanations in the public sphere? How do state discourses respond to public varieties of unreason, particularly where the supernatural is concerned?