The Nation

The nation-state still matters in Asean

The last decade was witness to a string of unfortunate instances of violence across Southeast Asia, with religious and ethnic conflicts becoming the norm in countries like Thailand and Indonesia. While much of that violence was homegrown and the result of internal domestic political factors, we have to admit that some of it was also the result of the transnational and fluid nature of Asean politics and society today.

The availability of portable communicative infrastructure and the ease with which Asean citizens can now travel across their region means that those who are likely to avail themselves of these new technologies are not only tourists, but also those who intend to use them for more sinister purposes.Names like those of Islamic extremists Noordin Top and Fajar Taslim come to mind, as the new generation of transnational insurgents and radicals who have been very adept in the use of communications and transport to deliver their messages beyond the shores of their country. It is worthwhile noting that despite their professed convictions and their faith in their cause, they chose to do what they did not in their home countries, but rather in neighbouring countries instead. What are we to make of this development? How new is it and what does it say about the present state of Asean?For a start, it has to be pointed out that individuals have been travelling abroad for a host of personal reasons for centuries. The Spanish Civil War was one instance when volunteers came from all over the world to take part in the struggle, and to take sides. Doubtless the romanticism of the cause lent it appeal for many idealistic youths. But even at the time of the Spanish conflict, one idea remained intact: the saliency and sovereignty of Spain as a nation-state.Today's radicals think that the era of the nation-state is a thing of the past. Their discourse is peppered with references to a trans-state entity that supersedes the authority of their own countries, and their appeal is for a master-state that transcends all states; a negation of the primacy of the nation-state in the age we live in. Though idealism has its time and place, two simple factors need to be borne in mind before such individuals get carried away by their actions:Firstly, despite its flaws and shortcomings, the post-colonial nation-state is the most practical solution to the challenges of governance, representation and distribution of resources. Across the world - and the Asean region is no exception - the logic of the nation-state animates politics, gives life to governance, and renders life liveable. It may be romantic to coin your own currency or play around with a flag you designed yourself, but we live our daily lives dependent on the most basic things such as the money we use to pay for our food and the passports we use when we travel abroad. Secondly, notwithstanding the romantic appeal that statelessness may hold for some, the fact is that an overwhelming majority of people live by the practical logic of nation-states and national identity. Some of these radicals may believe that they are committed to some higher, transcendental cause; but in the long run their actions affect not only their victims but also the nations involved. In the case of the terrorist attacks on Indonesia committed by foreigners, it has to be noted that the victims of such attacks were Indonesians themselves, the entire nation and its people. What cause, no matter how transcendental its claims may be, can justify the damage that was done to the country by a handful of foreign mavericks acting on the basis of global radicalism? As Asean develops at its own pace and looks to the future, its governments need to take into account the existing communicative infrastructure that now connects the entire region. And they will have to bear in mind that despite the growing proximity of Asean states (in terms of tourism, cultural exchange, commerce and education) there is always the need to factor in the reality that not all Asean citizens live and abide by the logic of nation-states. And yet until a better model is found, the nation-state is still perhaps the only practical system we have at our disposal.How then can we reconcile the differences between having a singular national identity and a plurality of religious, cultural, ethnic and linguistic attachments? The nation-states of Asean will have to adopt a more nuanced understanding of identity-construction in an era of change, and they ought to do so sooner than later. For failure to do so means that there will always be that tiny minority who will use the tool of the Asean state, but only to undermine it in the long-run.

Dr Farish A Noor is a senior fellow of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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