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Essays on ethnic identity, attitude formation, and political behaviour in contemporary Southeast Asia Chew, Isabel


Ethnic identity is often seen as a driving force that shapes political attitudes and behaviour in diverse societies. Yet, a significant body of work indicates that its effects are more nuanced and conditional than commonly thought. This dissertation extends our understanding of ethnicity’s role in politics by examining three different phenomena in contemporary Southeast Asia. The first study looks at the effects of ethnicity on voting behaviour in post-reform Myanmar. Drawing on a content analysis of parties’ social media posts, a regression analysis of the 2015 election results, and a conjoint experiment held prior to the 2020 elections, I show that ethnicity’s effect on voting behaviour is conditional on group dynamics at the subnational level. Depending on whether ethnic minorities form a subnational majority or minority, this influences the electorate’s interpretation of parties’ ethnic cues as well as ethnic minorities’ cost-benefit calculus when voting. This explains why some individuals might vote across ethnic lines, and why we see intra-group variation in ethnic voting. The second study investigates if ethnic similarities moderate anti-immigrant sentiments when immigrants violate local norms. Results from a survey experiment conducted in Singapore show that when native-born citizens are provided with information about immigrants’ behaviour, ethnicity does not matter. Instead, norm adherence consistently produces a positive and substantive effect on anti-immigrant sentiments. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that native-born citizens’ understandings of the national identity may be more important for shaping anti-immigrant attitudes than the ethnic background of immigrants themselves. The third study examines if ethnic prejudice can be improved in a repressive context. While the existing literature emphasizes strategies that focus on the recategorization of identity boundaries, this chapter proposes an alternative pathway that leverages individuals’ instrumental iv considerations. Findings from a survey experiment carried out in post-coup Myanmar show that cognitive-based attitudes towards a severely marginalised group – the Rohingya – improve when individuals are reminded of the Rohingya’s contribution to a shared goal. Furthermore, this effect is driven by individuals who have more at stake in the realisation of the goal.

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