Democracy, Dictators and the Dreams of Asia

Prof Mark R. Thompson studied at Brown University, University of Hawaii at Mānoa, Yale and Cambridge before being appointed head of department and professor of politics of the Department of Asian and International Studies

For Professor Mark R. THOMPSON, having a Filipino roommate at Brown University where he did his undergraduate degree sparked an enduring interest in Southeast Asia and set him on his future career path. It led to studying Tagalog at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and then spending three years in the Philippines, where he did research towards his PhD thesis at Yale University. This was later published in book format as The Anti-Marcos Struggle (Yale University Press, 1995).

Now head of department and professor of politics at the Department of Asian and International Studies (AIS) at CityU’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, as well as director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC), Thompson remains fascinated by the Philippines and the other countries of Southeast Asia. This has led him to research a broad spectrum of issues including non-democratic regimes, popular uprisings against dictatorship, army crackdowns, and female dynastic leaders.

For almost 20 years, Thompson taught at various universities in Germany as well as in Scotland, with a close-up view of world-changing events like the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Germany’s unification, and collapse of other state socialist regimes across Eastern Europe. Those experiences contributed to his ground-breaking work on the striking similarities between events in two different regions in his book Democratic Revolutions: Asia and Eastern Europe.

Before coming to Hong Kong, Thompson, a Chicago native, was a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University and the National University of Singapore, which enabled him to make new contacts and explore other areas of research, notably the changing democracies of Thailand and Indonesia. At CityU he received a large Hong Kong GRF grant, together with his colleague Professor William CASE, to study the democracies of Southeast Asia.

“Thailand has failed as a democracy despite its relative economic success,” Thompson says. “Indonesia is a democratic success story despite a much lower per capita income, holding several elections judged free and fair. The largest predominantly Muslim country in the world is seemingly holding together politically. In the Philippines, political extremism was hidden away since the fall of Marcos 30 years ago. But with the election of Rodrigo R Duterte as president last May, a warlord mayor [of the southern city of Davao] has risen to the national level. It surprised a lot of people that someone like him could become president.”

Logically enough, Thompson also studies the problems of democracy and the apparent success of some more authoritarian countries. For example, he has written several papers with his former student and now colleague Dr Stephan ORTMANN on how Singapore, a small city-state with an advanced economy and high living standards, has become a political model for China. “The Chinese are trying to learn from Singapore. I look at what lessons they draw and how they misinterpret it, and what policy changes they try to introduce based on it.”

Besides this, his research also concerns various forms of dynastic rule and their longer-term political impact in Asia. He has co-edited a volume on women leaders who are the daughters, widows, or sisters of prominent male politicians who have headed Asian governments such as Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Park Geun-hye of South Korea, Yingluck Shinawatra, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and Corazon Aquino of the Philippines. Another one of his research projects looked at the modernisers of Meji Japan which adopted the Prussian model of capitalism within an autocratic state.

Now heading AIS, Thompson notes with justifiable pride City University’s 33rd place ranking for politics and international relations in the QS 2016 survey of universities worldwide as well as its ranking as top 100 in development studies, another strength of AIS.

With the department celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, he also emphasises the cosmopolitan nature of the faculty, drawn from 13 different countries, and of the PhD students who come from 20 countries spread across 5 continents.

“We try to prepare our students for a globalised world: surveys show over 90 per cent of them get a job within six months of graduation, and two-thirds end up in business, finance, trading and logistics, showing the value of a globally-oriented education,” he says.

Courses taught in AIS include Bachelor of Social Sciences in Asian Studies, as well as MA programmes in international studies (politics and international relations), development studies (political economy), and modern Asian studies (politics and cultural studies). The department also teaches minors in Korean and Japanese language and culture. “We also have an environmental focus in the department. We have held seminars about organic farming and get involved in heritage preservation. We recently held a major exhibition of student projects in the heritage preservation field including Cantonese opera and tea making.”

Alongside this, AIS faculty conduct high quality research published in leading journals and top presses and attend prestigious international conferences. The department invites leading academics to speak at CityU, is involved in ongoing reviews of curriculum content and teaching practices to meet the best educational standards.

“We encourage innovative teaching methods,” Thompson says. There are some outstanding teachers in our department doing such things as teaching students about Buddhism and meditation or doing a simulation of a conflict situation in the South China Sea so they can better understand the dynamics and dangers of such a potential diplomatic crisis.

The department has become one of the most active in the university in promoting CityU by publishing research papers in international journals, giving interviews to major news outlets, and contributing articles to newspapers, magazines and online blogs. Thompson encourages his academic staff to venture outside the ivory tower and offer comments to the media based on their area of research.

In terms of organising conferences, AIS has collaborated on projects, exhibitions, conferences and workshops with UNESCO, the International Organisation for Migration, and Plan International among others. AIS also co-hosted the 2016 International Studies Association (ISA) Asia-Pacific Region conference together with SEARC which saw over 400 scholars come from around the world take part in the three days of intensive and lively discussions, making it the biggest regional ISA conference and one of the largest recently hosted by CityU.

As head of SEARC which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, Thompson says the centre brings together the work of nearly 30 faculty core members at CityU across various departments who are working on political, economic, social, legal and cultural issues. Hosting regular seminars and workshops with top scholars of the region from around the world, the centre collaborates with the Southeast Asian consulates and promotes cutting-edge research.

“It is a place for international exchange,” Thompson says. “It reaches out to the community, and although Hong Kong is preoccupied with China, it reminds the community of the importance of Southeast Asia, particularly the ties to the Chinese communities there and to the hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians living in Hong Kong.”

Research Interests

  • Democracy in Southeast Asia
  • East Asian authoritarianism
  • Political Dynasties in Asia

Research Grants

  • “Teaching Authoritariam Developmentalism: The ‘Singapore Model’” (with Stephan Ortmann), 2014-16, City University of Hong Kong, Strategic Research Grant (US $12,700)
  • “Democracy and its Discontents in Southeast Asia” (with William Case), 2013-17, General Research Fund, Hong Kong Research Grants Council (HKD 853,920/ US$110,067)
  • Workshop Grant “Student Activism in Pacific Asia”, 2009, National University of Singapore, (US$13,850)
  • Comparison of Female Politicians’ Careers in Europe and Asia, 2005-07, German Higher Education and Science Program (25,000 Euros)
  • Dynastic Female Leaders in Asia (with Claudia Derichs), 2003-06, DFG (German Research Foundation) (500,000 Euros)
  • Transitions and Non-Transitions from Communism, 2001-04, Wenner Gren Foundation (30,000 Euros)
  • EU-Leonardo Programme, 2002-04, Hum@no EU project grant for study of students’ career prospects (about 35,000 Euros)
  • American Exceptionalism, 1999, Bavarian America Academy (10,000 Euros)

Honours and Awards

  • Lee Kong Chian distinguished fellow for Southeast Asian studies, 2008-09, Stanford University and National University Singapore
  • Yale Center for International Studies, 1989, Research Fellowship for fieldwork in the Philippines
  • Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS), 1988, Advanced Tagalog, U.S. government grant
  • Rotary Foundation, 1984-1985, Scholarship for MA studies, University of the Philippines
  • Boutwood Prize and Manners Scholarship, 1983, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
  • Baker Foundation Grant, 1982-1984, Cambridge University
  • Dorot Foundation Grant, 1980, Hebrew University

Professional Highlights

  • Keynote speaker, Philippine Update Conference 2016: Sustaining the Momentum for Change Beyond 2016, The Australian National University, 2-3 September 2016.
  • Head, Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong, since June 2016 (acting head since January 2015).
  • “China’s ‘Singapore Model’ and its Limits,” with Stephan Ortmann, Journal of Democracy, 27, no. 1 (January 2016), pp. 39-48.
  • “Democracy with Asian Characteristics,” Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 74, no. 4 (November 2015), pp. 875-887.
  • President, Asian Political and International Studies Association (APISA), 2013-14.
  • Director, Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC), City U, since 2011.
  • Distinguished visiting fellow, Stanford University, spring semester 2009.
  • Distinguished visiting fellow, National University of Singapore, fall semester 2008.
  • Democratic Revolutions: Asia and Eastern Europe (London: Routledge, 2004).
  • “To Shoot or not to Shoot: Post-Totalitarianism in China and Eastern Europe,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 31, No. 1 (October 2001), pp. 63-83.
  • Associate Dean, Philosophical Faculty, Friedrich-Alexander- University, Erlangen-Nuremberg (Germany), 2000-02 (professor of politics at same university, 1997-2010).
  • The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalistic Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).