Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Singapore's South-east Asian potential

Can Singapore overcome narrow national confines to think of home as one within South-east Asia? Can there be an ASEAN citizen?
By Farish A Noor, Published The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2015

When looking at the future and considering where Singapore will be in the decades to come, the question of the location of Singapore - as with other countries of the ASEAN region - arises.

"Location" in this case does not apply simply to geography or pinpointing the precise coordinates of Singapore per se, but also involves locating the idea of Singapore on a broader epistemic register.

If we are to speak of Singapore as a South-east Asian nation-state, then surely being South-east Asian cannot simply be an outcome of a geographical accident: Being physically located in the region of South-east Asia does not necessarily make a nation or a people South-east Asian, unless they feel they are South-east Asian and regard South-east Asia as their home.

I regard this as one of the major challenges to come for Singapore and the entire ASEAN region - the success of ASEAN, and its relevance to the lives of about 600 million people, depends on the outcome.

When confronting the challenge, I veer between boundless optimism and deep pessimism.

On the one hand, it deserves to be stated again and again that ASEAN has succeeded in doing one thing that few international multi-state bodies have been able to do, which is to prevent war between member states of the association.

Apart from the European Union, few multi-state organisations of the kind have been able to secure a lasting peace between their members and within their respective regions.

This has bestowed upon all the countries of ASEAN an enormous peace dividend that we have all benefited from, and Singapore's development over the past half a century was ensured as a result of this as well.

The younger generation of Singaporeans and other ASEAN citizens would be wise to give credit where it is due and to recognise that almost everything they take for granted - from going to school to going to the mall afterwards to watch a movie - has been the result of this lasting peace, which has rendered our region peaceful, unlike many other parts of the world.

This enduring peace has also meant that Singaporean society was able to make the transition from a post-colonial state to a First World economy within the space of a generation. But, as a result of that, we now live in an ASEAN region where the emerging ASEAN middle class is a reality, and that middle class will have a higher level of expectations than the first generation before them did.

As an academic who teaches in Singapore and also other ASEAN countries, I am familiar with the phenomenon of young ASEAN professionals-to-be, the middle class-in-waiting, who harbour the hope that a university or college degree or diploma will deliver them to a new life of prosperity waiting over the horizon.

Managing these expectations will be the most important challenge faced by all states and societies in the region, and Singapore is no exception to the rule.


Possessing skills and talent, however, is not enough to guarantee the success of an individual or a society.

Invariably, geography and demography step in and, at some point, the individual is forced to confront the social realities of the environment he or she inhabits.

It is easy to be a genius in a community of 10, or to be the richest in a village of buffalo herders. But despite the oft-used phrase "global village", which has been bandied about for decades now, globalisation has not created a global village but rather a global megalopolis - where the individual is dwarfed by the multitude of humanity.

And humanity is now more mobile - geographically and socially - than ever before, thanks to the global communicative architecture in place, and more ambitious and more impatient too.

Mobility will be the norm in the future, where stasis and arrest will be equivalent to stagnation and eventual demise. And for Singaporeans - and millions of other South-east Asian citizens - this basically amounts to the emergence of a region where the movement of human capital and ideas will be normalised and taken for granted.

Gone are the days where one can live, Hobbit-like, in the comfort of one's isolated corner of the world.

Success in the future will necessitate being able and willing to pull up stakes and move, to have connections that extend beyond one's own country, and being able to adapt and relocate at a moment's notice.

(In this sense, the ASEAN region will be returning to its pre-colonial past, where movement, migration and settlement were the norms everywhere.)


But for this to happen, we need to radically reimagine what "home" means to us.

It is old hat by now to talk about globalisation and living in a globalised world. But even though the term has been used since the late 1980s, on the ground level, it appears to be a distant pipe dream for many.

As a scholar who teaches in various universities across the ASEAN region, I am still stunned that many youngsters I meet seriously believe that globalisation is a process that can be stopped, or that it will not have an impact on their lives.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Increased mobility today has an impact on every one of us.

Even the beca (rickshaw) drivers in Jogjakarta have felt its impact as more ASEAN tourists visit that city in Java because of greater mobility within the ASEAN region.

As this process accelerates, we will have to rethink some of the most basic concepts that have shaped our lives and identities so far, including that of "home".

Singapore's survival - and ASEAN's by extension - will depend partly on whether we can step beyond the parochial confines of our national identity and supplement that with a sense of regional identity and belonging. In other words, we need to think of South-east Asia as our home as well - the home of South-east Asians.

But how is this to be done?

This brings us to the next question: If we are to see our future success and survival in collective terms, and if that success and survival depend on the development of a sense of collective ASEAN consciousness, then can there ever be such a thing as a common ASEAN or South-east Asian identity?

And if so, what would it look like?


Here, our argument hits the hard rocks of reality - notwithstanding the long history of trade, migration, settlement and hybridisation that defines the identity of the South-east Asian region, there has never been such a thing as a common universal South-east Asian identity.

Being South-east Asian is certainly not an ethnic category, for there is no such thing as a singular South-east Asian ethnicity in the first place.

Nor would we be able to locate South-east Asian-ness on the register of a common language and culture, for there is no single common language spoken across our part of the world, even though the major languages of South-east Asia - Malay, Thai, Khmer, Burmese, Cambodian, et cetera - share common etymological roots in Sanskrit.

The South-east Asian does not belong to a South-east Asian "race" or culture or linguistic family, but it does exist - in the same way that a European identity exists - on the level of ideas.

And if we are to make that leap to the next register of identity, then it is precisely that mental leap we need to perform in as deft and seamless a manner as humanly possible.

This takes off when we realise that the very idea of South-east Asia itself is a construct, which is something that is sadly not reflected in the history books we read - the accounts that continue to present the region and its component states as ontologically fixed and given entities.

Despite evidence pointing to the long history of migration and hybridisation across the region, our common understanding of our region's history and national identities continues to reiterate the idea that our identities are fixed, stable and exclusive.

But surely that cannot be the case, and the notion of fixed exclusive identities flies in the face of our daily lived realities. As it is, all of us are complex subjects anyway: We balance our ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, class and gender identities all the time, without any one of these identities cancelling out the others.

Why, then, is it so difficult to add another layer of identity to our lives and to think of ourselves as being South-east Asian as well? (That, to some extent, is what Europe has achieved and we have not.)

The fact that Beethoven's Ode To Joy is the anthem of the EU tells us something about how far the EU has been able to bring the peoples of Europe together, transcending their divisions in the past.

When one considers the number of wars that have taken place across Europe, the fact that a German composer's anthem was accepted by the French, British and Dutch is a remarkable statement in itself.

We in the ASEAN region need to make a similar leap to a new level of understanding - where we see our region as our common home, and a land that is not "foreign".

As Singapore looks to its own future, it needs to recognise that the geography of the region is not about to change any time soon: Rooting Singapore in South-east Asia means making that conceptual-existential leap to a new sense of homeliness and belonging, and extending one's sense of comfort further, rendering the foreign and uncomfortable homely instead.

Can this ever happen?

Here is where even the state and the strongest pedagogic tools encounter their limit: for no matter how strong a state can be, or how persuasive an educational system can be, neither can occasion a shift in one's subjective worldview.

That leap has to be done by all of us and, if it can be done collectively, then our world has suddenly grown wider and more homely as a result.

Farish A. Noor is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He has written extensively on the history of South-east Asia and lectured at universities across the region.

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