John Roosa

Associate Professor

Research Classification

Research Interests

Social Organization and Political Systems
Human Rights and Liberties, Collective Rights
Foreign Affairs
History of Indonesia

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - April 2022)
"Disciplined nation": youth as subjects and citizens in Singapore, 1942-1970s (2021)

This dissertation applies insights and concepts from French philosopher Michel Foucault and the historiography of childhood and youth to provide new insights about state-society relations, power, nation-building and state-formation in post-1942 Singapore. During the formative decades of Singapore’s transition from a British colony to an independent nation-state between the 1940s and the 1970s, a diverse group of people in Singapore, Japan, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, came to equate the children and youth of Singapore with the past, present, and future of the island-city. Accordingly, they made the proper upbringing, policing, and mobilization of Singapore’s youth a key aspect of governance. At the same time, they exploited the polysemic and flexible age-demarcated category of youth as a technology of power to manage democracy, dissent, diversity, and difference in Singapore. This emerging cultural politics and political rationality of youth in Singapore between the 1940s and 1970s led to the emergence of a youth-conscious and youth-centered Singapore disciplinary state — a state that employs an extensive apparatus of disciplinary institutions, programs, and agents that sought to shape, regularize, homogenize, and regulate young people’s subjectivities and conduct. This was done to incorporate a diverse and divided population into productive and supportive relationships with the state and economy. In particular, the Lee Kuan Yew-led People’s Action Party (PAP) government that ruled Singapore after 1965 valorized youth as simultaneously the potential pillar and potential peril of the new nation-state. This dualistic way of looking at the young warranted increasing adult and state surveillance over, and intervention into, the everyday lives and upbringing of the young. It legitimized the devotion of attention and resources to young people’s development and empowerment and their policing and regulation at the same time. This resulted in both inclusionary and exclusionary, positive and negative impacts on young people’s ability and freedom to exercise control over their lives.

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Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2021)
Dangerous moments: an oral history of the May 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur (2021)

This study foregrounds the experiences of urban Malaysians during the May 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur. Based on oral life history interviews, it takes a microhistory approach to argue that Malaysians cooperated with each other across lines of race, class, and religion at life-threatening moments, even though the violence was primarily one between members of different races. The study differs from previous scholarly work, most of which have taken a top-down approach to the riots and builds on more recent scholarly work. There are two primary sites of inquiry: neighbourhoods and cinemas in Kuala Lumpur, and the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. Accounts shared by Malaysian cinemagoers who were stuck at theatres demonstrate how quickly racial identification was done by rioters to decide between friends and foes. On a neighbourhood level, Malaysians provided refuge to their neighbours even if they were of different class or religion. Narratives by hospital workers and volunteers problematize our understanding of the violence’s scale, temporality, and spatiality. They also help us see how Malaysians helped each other across racial lines, as well as the varied enforcement of the state of emergency promulgated following the riots. Understanding the riots from the perspective of these particular Malaysian interviewees not only allows us to gain a more nuanced understanding of what happened during the riots, but also permits us to hear the voices of riot victims, some of whom were speaking about their experience for the first time.

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Pressing for Melayu: English-language newspapers and language in the Malaysian education system, 1957-1969 (2021)

Although Malaysia gained independence while promising that it would strive for racial equality amongst its diverse communities, the political elite, composed of Malays did not fulfill that promise. Malay political elites were fueled by an imagined threat that the ethnic Chinese population’s economic growth would take over their land and eventually rid the Malays from the country. As such, the Malay political elite made the Malay Language/Bahasa Melayu the official language of the country and medium of instruction, disregarding many ethnic minorities’ voices desire for recognition of their ethnic identity’s place as a Malaysian. Many minority groups felt betrayed by this decision, which increased already tenuous race relations. In parallel with this crisis of identity, Malay periodicals and newspapers began publishing articles that advocate for a Malay-first nation. Similarly, Malaysian English newspapers refrained from criticizing Malay pre-eminence rhetoric and neglected smaller groups’ sentiment about this issue. Instead, the two most circulated English newspapers, The Straits Times and The Malay Mail, chose to remain subservient to the political elites and disregard the issue of Malay pre-eminence (ketuanan Melayu) in discussion of formative national policies. This paper uses The Straits Times and The Malay Mail to explore the English-language newspaper’s presentation of the discussion of language in the country’s national education policy from 1957 to 1969. I argue that newspapers facilitated the paradigm of Malay pre-eminence, but that they also became contested sites for the discussion surrounding that paradigm.

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Racial and economic influences in the Malay-language press coverage of the anti-Chinese riot in 1918 Kudus, Java (2020)

An examination of the Malay-language press coverage in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) following the Kudus riot of October 31, 1918. This riot, an attack by indigenous (bumiputra) townspeople against the long-established Chinese population following a brawl on October 30, caused half of the Chinese population to flee the town and led to mass arrests of indigenous townspeople and political leaders by the Dutch authorities. Previous work on the Kudus riot has explained it as the result of economic competition between Chinese and indigenous businesses. Less attention has been given to how the riot was interpreted by the wider racial communities of the Dutch East Indies in the aftermath. This thesis compares a large body of the Kudus riot coverage in Malay newspapers in the weeks after the riot and examines how the newspapers' editorial lines shifted in November 1918, from an initially cautious phase where the Malay papers simply reprinted Dutch content, to a phase where the papers sought out credible correspondents or spokespeople from their own racial group, to a final phase of aggressive criticism of other editors and their interpretations of the riot and arrests. The four main papers being examined represent distinct positions on the Chinese and indigenous sides: Sin Po (nationalist Chinese), Djawa Tengah (moderate Chinese), Neratja (moderate indigenous), and Sinar Hindia (nationalist indigenous). After comparing the coverage in those papers, the thesis examines cases of outsider figures who worked for newspapers owned by other racial groups as well as the efforts by some editors and community officials to establish and promote Chinese-indigenous “friendship meetings” as a way to prevent future outbreaks. The thesis establishes some of the limits of expression in the newspapers of the time due not only to the poor relationships between racial groups and the threat of arrest under Dutch censorship laws, but also seeks out examples of cosmopolitan ideas and awareness of a common colonized status shared by both Chinese and indigenous.

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A Colonial Haunting: Prostitution and the Politics of Sex Trafficking in British India, 1917-1939 (2012)

Following the murder of a Bombay prostitute in 1917, the Government of India launched a series of investigations and commissions of inquiry in order to determine the scope of prostitution and extent of sex trafficking across British India. Between 1917 and 1939, these colonial projects produced a vast archive of ethnographic and statistical information about those women whose lives were intricately tied to brothels in the Indian subcontinent. In this paper, I examine the politics behind these projects of knowledge production and the colonial desire to make these women “known.” By situating this colonial history within the international climate of the interwar period – a time when the legitimacy of the British Empire was increasingly challenged by Indian nationalists and subject to scrutiny by the League of Nations – this study argues that colonial administrators appropriated the highly publicized death of an Indian prostitute to elicit emotions of shock and pity and in turn, preserve the ideological legitimacy of “enlightened” British rule by fashioning themselves as “modernizers of indigenous patriarchy” in India. The death of the prostitute, much like the controversy around sati and child marriage in the nineteenth century, became a metonym for the social ills of India which justified colonial intervention as a form of benevolent paternalism. However, these knowledge production projects rarely materialized into tangible social reforms for the women at question. They were, instead, a public relations exercise meant to bolster the international image of British rule India and create an illusion of the success of the colonial technologies of surveillance. Sustaining commonsense assumptions about colonial prostitutes required an ongoing effort to produce statistics, social “facts,” and tropes about them. By scrutinizing these colonial reports and the context of their production, this study attempts to illuminate both the illogical and unpredictable nature of state commissions of inquiry and the ulterior motives of imperial legitimacy behind seemingly benevolent colonial social reforms for Indian women.

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Current Students & Alumni

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