Politics of Nation-Building and Citizenship in Singapore (Politics in Asia)

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These measures were implemented to create an efficient system for maximum economic exploitation but also manipulated to legitimize colonialism as a civilizing mission that sought to better the lives of its colonised subjects. The colonial powers also often chose to cultivate special relationships with selected ethnic minorities groups to maintain their control over the majority ethnic groups Christie This further divided the ethnic communities as seeds of discords were sowed through perception of unequal treatment.

By the end of colonial rule, the once multi-faceted and fluid identity of Southeast Asian has been replaced with institutionalized, singular identities narrowly based on political allegiance to a nation-state and social allegiance to an ethnic community. Colonial rule left behind a language game of totalized identities that is defined by exclusivity and oppositional in nature. In the mental map of Southeast Asians, the lines of division that had been drawn in the boardrooms of the colonial companies have become both a political and social reality.

These would lay the groundwork for political identities to be based on exclusivity and complicate the quest for nation-building and regionalism after independence was achieved by the colonial states. The same language games played by the colonial functionaries continue to be played by the political elites of Southeast Asia which informs present-day sensibilities in the statecraft, economy and international relations of the region. These inherited colonial legacies would have serious implications on how international relations are conducted by the political elites of Southeast Asia and act as impediments to regional integration efforts.

Like their colonial rulers, the political elites continue to perceive the region as primarily an economic space and securitized region.

Any form of diplomatic contact was perceived as instrumentalist and economical in nature. It is this continuity in the colonial language game that has influenced the Southeast Asian states to be extremely reluctant to give up any bits of their sovereignty. The political boundaries as delineated and determined by colonial powers remains jealously guarded and maintained by the post-independence political elites.

The fact that the principle of non-interference is upheld as the working principle of ASEAN since its founding is an indication of such a mindset. Southeast Asian political elites have likewise inherited the legacy of mutual mistrust and egoistic interests which impedes the formation of a genuine, shared community. For instance, Singapore remains plagued by a siege mentality that views its neighbouring countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, with much suspicion and this mentality informs its diplomacy approaches and military doctrines in the region Rahim These statements serve as an indicator that ASEAN is not united by any geographical or historical linkages but rather material and political-economic interests, whereas Southeast Asia remains a region where cultures, histories, language and ethnic identities overlap and cross-fertilize one another.

Under such an arrangement, it is not surprising that commonalities between states are often only highlighted wherever mutual benefit exists Jones ASEAN itself was formed out of a common fear of being dragged into the Cold War conflict and not an attempt at the revival of pre-colonial cultural linkages Vatikiotis At its formation, none of the member states had envisioned the creation of any collective community that will require them to give up parts of their sovereignty ibid. From these, it is clear that the sanctity of national sovereignty and principles of non-interference as inherited under colonial rule continues to inform diplomatic relations in the region and has become the guiding principle of ASEAN.

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As explained, the political elites of ASEAN continue to be trapped as highly sovereignty-conscious actors while at the same time espousing the contradictory goals of regional integration and a shared identity. The language at play highlights the paramount status of national sovereignty and interest before regional solidarity in the eyes of the political elites of ASEAN.

Regional integration is therefore mainly seen as a mean to allow the nation-state of Southeast Asia to obtain political and economic objectives that it is unable to achieve alone Kim As Rodolfo C. However, actions by ASEAN member states that acts in contradictions to the fulfillment of such goals are aplenty. The lack of regional cohesion among the ASEAN member states to formulate a coordinated and coherent response against China both in the South China Sea dispute and the Lancang-Mekong hydropower dam project are further examples of how national interest continues to be prioritized over regional interest Biba In those scenarios, member states that are keen to maintain a close political and economic linkage with China are reluctant to agree on a common stance that is beneficial to the region out of fear that it may risk their diplomatic relations with China Yoshimatsu In essence, ASEAN is an attempt by political elites to re-imagine the region in form but not in substance.

Its members have remained largely indifferent to the plight of its counterparts except when it infringes on their national interest and sovereignty. Instead, the continued preoccupation over state sovereignty by the political elites inhibits the formation of a genuine ASEAN community. The roots for regionalism has always been shallow and are mainly driven by pragmatic political and economic considerations.

Regional integration is largely seen as a mean to allow its respective member states to obtain greater political and economic clout through resources pooling wherever mutual, practical benefit exists so as to secure their national sovereignty Kim Despite their stated intention, it was most probably never the intent of the political elites to build a regional project that erodes national boundaries and imagine itself as a region of collective past, present and future.

This ideological worldview as imposed by colonialism is deeply embedded into the consciousness of Southeast Asians and continues to be perpetuated by the ruling political elites. Examples are aplenty such as in the case of the sacking of the Thai embassy in Cambodia in or the oft-repeated verbal attacks made by Malaysia politicians on Singapore. Due to the deliberate over-emphasis on distinct and exclusive national identity, little is discussed on the interconnectedness and cross-cultural interactions of pre-colonial Southeast Asian communities and kingdoms Noor National histories across the region are often written and retold in isolation, often with their independence struggle as the pre-given starting point and the respective nation-states as the main actor in the foreground Noor All of the national historical narratives taught in Southeast Asia accept its modern, post-colonial political boundaries as a given reality and impressed upon its readers a false perception of their nation-state as a fixed entity with national characteristics and cultural heritage that are exclusive and distinctive from its neighbours since time immemorial Noor There is little mention of a dynamic, borderless pre-colonial Southeast Asia that could explain the many similarities in cultural heritage, values and belief systems of Southeast Asians.

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There is perhaps a reason for this. These national histories are often plagued with overlapping claims and demands that are contradictory to the dominant narrative employed to give shape to their national identity. This continuity in oppositional dialectics from the colonial era and the unconditional acceptance of inherited political borders as a given reality hinders the re-imagining of the region as a collective community with a shared past, present and future. The result is a highly apathetic population who are more concerned about what happens within their country but remain unconnected and largely unaware of the region.

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Citizens of ASEAN have very little knowledge about their neighbouring countries, not to mention fellow member states that are located further away Thuzar Few individuals in Southeast Asia would identify themselves with as an ASEAN citizen and share very little affinity with their counterparts in other member states. A study by Azmawati and Quayle shows that even at the university level, students in Southeast Asia are often very unfamiliar with the organization, goals and progress of the ASEAN Community. Further research carried out by Christopher Roberts between and also demonstrates that a high level of distrust exists between the citizens and governments of ASEAN.

ASEAN today is in a state of an identity crisis. The organization creates a vision for regional solidarity yet its people remain trapped in an inherited language game that has defined national identity based on exclusivity and a worldview that accept modern state boundaries as a given political reality.

Any memory of pre-colonial affinities and collective past that could have formed the foundation of a regional identity has also been eroded Noor Not necessarily so. However, for such a mammoth undertaking to take place, a significant cognitive transition must be made by the people of ASEAN that exceed the confines of temporality and space to re-imagine the region.

This will require both the political elites and citizens of ASEAN to break away from the inherited baggage of colonialism and abandon the language game of fixed, stable and exclusive identities. An awareness and internalization of the logic that identities can be overlapping and not mutually exclusive must be made. They must be made aware of the artificiality of modern-day national boundaries and accept that elements of commonality in history, culture, ethnicity and geographies exists in the region. In addition, there is a need to refrain from the selective appropriation of history to make nationalistic claims.

For instance, instead of competing over the ownership of the batik, it could be celebrated and promoted as a shared ASEAN heritage and serve as a social glue that enhances the sense of a regional identity. History education is also critical to the imaginaries of community building.

Unfortunately, the current education systems of ASEAN states are not well-equipped to support such a venture Koh Thus, member states will have to de-parochialize their curriculum and re-tailor them to educate and familiarize the young people of ASEAN about their shared historical-cultural roots.

National histories have to shift away from a mono-logical retelling of events to one that teaches it in the broader context of the region that reminds the people of ASEAN of the numerous, intersecting historical and cultural ties that exists amongst them.

Nation-Building in Southeast Asia: The Case of Singapore by Dr Leo Suryadinata. Part 3

By the nature of their role, interest and responsibilities, they are conditioned to act in a manner that is fixated on the protection of the territorial and economic sovereignty of their nation-states. It would be difficult to ask them to think otherwise.


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On the contrary, ordinary citizens at the grass-root level do not have their hands tied in the same manner. While ASEAN as a language game played by the political elites is not united by any geographical or historical linkages but rather material and political-economic interests, Southeast Asia remains an organic region where cultures, histories, language and ethnic identities overlap and cross-fertilize one another.

Moreover, if ASEAN wishes to achieve the goals of closer integration, a collective ASEAN identity must be developed not just among the political leaders and bureaucrats but also the general population of the region. Therefore, the sense of a common regional identity that has been argued to exist at the elite level by Acharya has to be broadened to include the ordinary people of ASEAN.

This is hardly surprising given that the ASEAN community process remains largely state-centric and mostly elite-driven with little done thus far to draw in the citizenry into the ambit of regional interaction Moorthy and Benny Intra-regional people-to-people interaction at the ground level should therefore be highly encouraged. The formation of a collective identity and interest has to be shaped by intensive interaction at the ground level.

Existing ASEAN professional bodies and civil societies whose mode of interactions have become regular and organic may be helpful in organizing and facilitating these interactions. The formal and informal networks formed by these organizations have shown to ignore the language game of exclusivity and instead cooperated for decades on regional issues Tadem Thus, their networking should be promoted and governments should leverage on their experiences to develop social spaces that promote greater people-to-people interaction and cultural exchanges.

These solidarity-building measures will eventually trickle down to the grass-root level and help construct a collective ASEAN identity. A possible explanation for this absence of identification with the ASEAN identity is that the people of Southeast Asia continue to be trapped in a language game inherited from the colonial era which has defined national identities based on the notion of exclusivity and a worldview that accepts modern state boundaries as a given political reality. Any memory of pre-colonial affinities and common past that could have served as the foundation of a regional identity have also been erased.

A revamp of history education in the region is critical in such a venture.

Politics Of Nation Building And Citizenship In Singapore (Politics In Asia)

As Benedict Anderson postulates on the possibilities of nation-states as imagined communities, so can a regional identity exist as an ontological object of the mind if Southeast Asians are able to re-imagine a contemporary Southeast Asia not solely defined by territorial borders and exclusive national identity Anderson His research interests focus on Southeast Asian issues, particularly on its pre-colonial history, impact of colonial rule, separatism in the region, politics in Malaysia and the development of ASEAN. Acharya, Amitav.

Singapore: Times Academic Press, London: Routledge, London: George Eyre and Andrew Strahan, Agence France-Presse. Ahmad, Kassim. Hikayat Hang Tuah.

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Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Andaya, Barbara Watson and Leonard Y. A history of early modern Southeast Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Anderson, Benedict. Imagined community: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, Association of Southeast Asian Nation.

Azmawati, Dian and Linda Quayle. Biba, Sebastian. Caballero-Anthony, Mely. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Caporaso, James A. Central Intelligence Agency. Chang, Jun Yan. Chaudhuri, K. Chew, Amy. Chong, Jinn Winn. Christie, Clive J. London: Tauris Academic Studies, Collins, Alan. Denoon, David B.

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