I will present my conference notes in my next entry, but first, here are the remarks I delivered during my portion of the Asian Thoughts Leaders Forum held under the auspices of the Arts House of Singapore. The forum, the first of its kind held by the Arts House as part of its Asia-on-the-edge Festival, had the theme, “The Asian — Past, Present & Future.”
The opening forum was held on Friday, November 28, in The Arts House, located in the Old Parliament of that City-State. I had the delicious good fortune to be seated in the front bench and in no less than PM Lee Kwan Yew’s own seat.
The keynote address was delivered by Prasenjit Duara (India), Director of Research In Humanities and Social Sciences at NUS; Emeritus Professor of History and East Asian and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, US; Author. His paper was titled “Origins and Beginnings: Where Do We Start?” And the discussion afterwards was moderated by Professor Wang Gungwu, Chairman, East Asia Institute.
Here it is.
There were other presentations, as well, although the one by Mechai Viravaidya on “Privatizing Poverty Alleviation” had to be cancelled, because he was unable to leave Thailand due to the closure of Bangkok’s airports.
And so here’s what I said on Sunday afternoon.
THE FUTURE OF ASIA: WHITHER NATION AND STATE?
Manuel L. Quezon III
This is the first time in the history of our nations that leadership has passed to a generation with no memory of what it was like not to be free citizens of independent nations. The challenges and call of achieving independence has been a reality for a full generation for some; for others, close to three.
Whichever way you measure it, the struggle for independence is passing from living memory and so are the emotions and motivations of our independence struggles. Instead the call of our times is to be worthy stewards of that independence and to build societies in which each and every citizen is truly free: in terms of their health and wealth and, increasingly, in terms of individual liberties and participation in the political process.
Independence as our birthright means that for the generation of the children of the “independence generation”, they in turn, hear the siren call of global opportunity and challenge their elders and the societies that they built, which put a premium on stability, consensus, and domestic economic growth. The challenge they put forward is for heir elders to validate validity the notion of nation and nationalism.
Even as we build bridges between our nations, engaging in cooperation and mutual assistance that’s also unprecedented, our young people ask whether nation, nationhood, nationalism and even citizenship are even relevant labels in their lives. Considering the limits imposed on their peers who remain at home, in nations concerned not with individual freedom, but national stability.
IAN McKellen, the actor known to teenagers and those who adore Shakespearean drama alike, once said, “Actors don’t describe – they inhabit.” This gathering of thinkers has proposed something similar: that while those of us who think and write for a living, obsess over who or what we are, the majority of our countrymen and our fellow Asians just are – and that it takes a summoning of the imagination for us to grasp what is immediate, what is real, for the rest.
This would have suited the great players of the game of realkpolitik in the past—the European past that subdivided us. “The word ‘Italy’ is a geographical expression,” Metternich wrote, in a letter to the Austrian ambassador in April 1847, “ a description which is useful shorthand, but has none of the political significance the efforts of the revolutionary ideologues try to put on it, and which is full of dangers for the very existence of the states which make up the peninsula.” And so the Roman Pontiff drew a line, cleaving the world in twain, so to speak, and the Spanish derived legitimacy to declare dominion over the Philippines on one hand, and Portugal claimed the Moluccas, on the other. The British, from their East India Company headquarters in India then seized Manila briefly, and their compatriots then painted the region pink, adding Burma and what they then called Malaya, and Singapore, to their dominions while France’s ouvre civilsatrice carved out its mission in Indochina and the Dutch displaced the Portuguese and declared dominion over their Dutch East Indies.
You and I all know this, it was in the textbooks we read in school; and from those colonies arose the nations whose passports we individually carry, whose flags we salute and wave with pride, and whose anthems we sing in languages our colonizers considered unfit for political consumption. Around us continue to stand monuments to imperial self-satisfaction and permanence, now reduced to whitewashed artifacts of antiquarian, mainly tourist, interest. And inexorably in our nations the buildings of truly Roman braggadocio—because such clearly structural representations of pretentions to Roman-inspired imperial cultural pride—have been reduced, as this building has, to enclaves where the past is preserved but no longer exclusive enclaves where all the truly momentous decisions are made. Those decisions are now made in postcolonial-era towers of glass and steel, by young men and women under the watchful eyes of middle aged men and women who have never known what it was like to be a colonial subject.
And yet, the era of direct foreign rule was not so long ago, that it has passed beyond living memory. There are still quite a few among us who were born and raised the subjects of a foreign power. To be sure, to still be with us, means that they were only in their teens or at most, in their twenties or thirties at that time; but they can all remember that defining moment when the flag of the foreign power was finally lowered and the new flag of a new nation hoisted, waving alone over territories over which the imperial or colonial sun was never supposed to set.
In 1939, my grandfather, then President of an autonomous republic four years into what was expected to be a decade-long transition to full independence, remarked in a speech that he wondered what would happen once the unifying influence of the independence cause was lost. With independence, he asked, would the various ethnicities then resume squabbling among themselves, according to loyalties that had predated the colonial powers and whose rivalries and jealousies the colonialists had so superbly harnessed to–as the Romans put it—a “divide and rule”? His answer was to centralize authority, to build an army, to create a one-party state and to focus public attention on spectacles of state: parades, speeches, flags, anthems, banners, slogans. To begin refocusing the energies of the rulers and the ruled, on themselves, since the others, the foreigners, were scheduled to depart the scene.
Yet two years prior to his inauguration the first popularly elected President of his country, the British and the Americans had concluded a treaty further refining the territory between the southernmost territories of the Philippines and the British territories in Malaya and Borneo. Thus it was, for the Filipinos that their national territory was defined by the colonial powers: as it would be for the Indonesians, as it would be for the Malaysians, the Singaporeans, the peoples of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and to a certain extent, the Thais with relations to the Burmese.
Much has been made of Benedict Anderson’s thesis that nations are fundamentally “imagined communities,” but for us Southeast Asians, at least, and to a certain extent for all Asians, particularly East Asians, we are all geographic expressions, trying to translate our vernacular cultures and identities into the high language of state and statecraft, imposing reason into often unreasonable -because arbitrary- negotiated borders arrived at without either consultation or reference to our precolonial histories. As it was in the Empire of India, about to be cleft, in twain, between India and Pakistan, and where the borders between the two was being penciled in on a map by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, literally lives and treasure on the line—a British-drawn line to the end!
Still: if, for prestige and profit, the region had been subdivided and parceled out among the great and mediocre powers of the West, it was in each parcel that there germinated and thus, sprouted, the concept of a national identity.
My grandfather’s anxiety over whether the often fractious independence movement of his country could survive the sobering reality of independence was not unique; what he could not foresee was that after the formalities and full panoply of independence was achieved, our respective Asian countries all then began to wrestle with another struggle altogether, the fight against Communism. And after that, or to be precise, inspired by that ideological fight, another preoccupation became central in the minds of what I call our independence generations: the question of social order and material progress.
When Suharto of Indonesia died, Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore went to pay his respects; Mahathir of Malaysia paid tribute, too. The elaborate courtesies they exchanged were courtly; and criticized in the West as a kind of last hurrah of Asian Values, the exact sort of values the West of course viewed as essential during the heyday of these statesmen: but the era of statesmen seems to have passed, and in its place we have the much more modest or perhaps it is more accurate to say, definitely merely as large-as-life, politicos-cum-technocrats of today. In all our countries, the passing of a Suharto, and the shuffling out of official retirement of a Lee or Mahathir, is worthy of a kind of momentary pause; I daresay we all gawked at the goings on during those Indonesian state obsequies, because we fully well know no such political giants shall ever walk our respective lands again—whether we loved them, feared them, hated them, admired them.
These men—they could only have been men, in their times and respective places—were statesmen in the broadest sense of the word; with the exception of Lee, they were more properly the heirs of the generation that had actually secured independence, but they were the generation that had turned the formality of sovereignty into a living and functional reality. They also had the advantage, in the main, of political longevity, and thus an unrivaled—possibly, unsurpassable—record of institutional incumbency. Marcos was as to Quezon as Suharto was to Sukarno, and as Mahathir was to Tunku Abdul Rahman, or even as Indira Gandhi was to Pandit Nehru. The transformation of colonial government and territory to national state and national territory may have been for the first of the independence generations to achieve; the transformation of that state into a nation: it may be that for better or worse, it was the second of the independence generations that achieved that, with leaders creating what Pierre Bourdreau described as a “State nobility” for each country: those we like to call, in more pedestrian fashion, technocrats.
With independence achieved, the Cold War at an end, in many cases the economy either transformed or permanently stunted, whether rich or poor, groaning under poverty or enjoying unprecedented prosperity, Asians, in particular Southeast Asians, have run out of causes to which entire peoples can find a collective reason for being in unity with their leaders. Is it no wonder then, that in countries where prosperity has eluded governments, or where political legitimacy is fragile, two, sometimes three, generations after independence, literally—from the perspective of our present nation-states- campaigns are launched, whether on the ground or simply in the feverish imaginations of rabble-rousers?
Claiming temples, disputing the old colonial boundaries, encroaching on modernity by disputing bedrock principles of the modern nation-state, like secularism, and challenging notions of national identity by repeatedly invoking the communitarian, sectarian, and ethnic divisions of old: all are, in a sense, the rituals and aesthetics of what the present-day State Nobilities in the clubs, churches, and schools of that nobility, consider the primitive, the dangerous, the subversive. And, alas, the thrilling and inspiring for everyone else. A specter is haunting Asia, to freely borrow the tired old rhetoric of Karl Marx: it is the specter of militant theocracy. But this is, in many ways, truly Asia, with all due respect to the Malaysian tourism authority. For it is the Asia of emperor-kings, riding on war elephants, where those God-like kings trampled the alien neighbor, and where the rulers and ruled were united in fealty and tradition; and where the world, in a word, operated to the true rhythms of nature and not the enforced, artificial, distinctions of Western time and the calendar of the secular state.
So long as you could remember what it was like to see your part of the world considered yet another province, colony, protectorate or even department of a foreign metropolitan power, the incentive for you to set aside difference with your neighbor in recognition that ultimately, to the foreign ruler, they saw no differences among you except that you were all inferior, was irresistible. You would speak more eloquent, elegant English or French; you would learn Latin and the law, you would master metallurgy and engineering, you would learn military tactics and political economy, you would draft a constitution, design a flag, make speeches, write books, sing songs, declare loyalty that set yours apart from what was expected of you by the Governor-General, the Regent, or the puppet emperor.
You would fiercely defend that against the Japanese, against returning colonialists, against Marxists; you would come up with plans superior to any Socialist Five Year Plan, you would have children who knew not hunger, nor thirst, nor malaria nor beri-beri. We have, to a certain extent, even in the poorest of our respective countries, accomplished all that; and yet, for the generations who never knew that, there is, -what?
When Megawati Sukarnoputri became the first President of Indonesia not to have been born a colonial subject, I found it a truly remarkable thing. And even more remarkable, to me, was that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is only the first president my country has ever had, who hadn’t been born under a foreign flag. Chances are, for my country, the next head of state would also have been born a free Filipino, just as Megawati’s successor, Yudhoyono, was also born a free Indonesian—indeed, born in the year the former colonial power reluctantly recognized his country’s independence. Whether one speaks of Najib or Anwar in Malaysia or Lee Hsien Long in Singapore, the inevitable transition to a purely post-independence-born leadership is at hand; and everywhere else, the generation of the War, the veterans of long marches and Dien Bien Phus and even of Khmer Rouge, are passing from the scene.
Just as many of the bright, well-fed, well-educated, well-accomplished of the generation of their sons and daughters and grandchildren are passing from the scene –passing from the national to the international, from the domestic to the global; inspired not with nationalist yearnings but globalized appetites for the glitter of career and its material manifestations. There is no thrill in anthem, no particular stirring invoked by flag, certainly nothing but a skepticism in the concept of army or national service, no attitude towards the state and the law but hurdles to overcome, in this and these generations. The blessings of independence seem so mixed, so hollow, in this sense: of a failed promise for countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, where nationhood is an obstacle and it seems, often an imposition; of fulfilled promises but one which has been superseded by personal ambition, in the case of Singapore or even Japan, where the countries have material prosperity but are grappling with the frightening possibility of being unable to, literally, procreate to continue the family of the nation.
Ask any Asian and I think you will hear them say, our respective nations all face problems. The problems may differ, as I pointed out, but they all point to a similar phenomenon of a political and administrative, educational and entrepreneurial, class of leaders all wondering why their sons and daughters would rather live elsewhere than at home.
There is no consensus on what to do, not least, because increasingly, consensus seems more and more difficult to reach in these countries.
The problem of arriving at a consensus is more serious in some places than others: it may be, the longer the history, the more difficult consensus is to reach.
There is no consensus, in the Philippines, for example, on our national beginning. There is little consensus, on where the Philippines is, though a broad but shallow consensus that the Philippines has not met its national potential. There is even less consensus on where the Philippines ought to go, much less where it’s headed. Though being the perennial optimists that we are, there seems no consensus that we are or will be, a failed state.
But then, consensus seems more and more impossible in Thailand, which has never formally been under foreign rule. And the old certainties of one party rule seem more and more endangered–the consensus-building within the political class, more and more tenuous and thus, fragile—are vanishing in Malaysia.
But what we have are young people armed with truly astounding practical gifts, incredible mastery of tools and machines, and who now instill a kind of terror in the West that the West used to instill in our forefathers; where the West once sneered at us as old, tired, degenerate cultures, now our young people can sneer at the West for the same things—yet irony of ironies, the baubles of Orientalism now have their equivalents in our young and their Occidentalism.
And everywhere, it seems, whatever the economic accomplishments or lack of them in nations considered Asian, a problem confronts nations that are embarking on anywhere from their second to third generation of existence as independent nations. We all have a nationality; a defined sovereignty; an entrenched political class. All under leaders who are, themselves, products not of the colonial era, but of the nationalist regimes born out of that era. For the first time in our own individual national existences, a majority of both the leaders and the led have no living memory of what it was like to be colonial subjects or be pondering either the desirability, or inevitability, of a sovereign national existence.
Was it all a Pyrrhic Victory, then? We have independence, but the free peoples of the East now want to make a living as freely as possible—or sometimes, unfreely but profitably—in the West? And even as our best and brightest desire to go elsewhere, who is left? Those that never bought into the concept of Western time with its linearity, its evolutionary aspirations, its developmental and institutional delusions? They seem to be ever growing, ever demanding, ever-headed for a direct confrontation with the state and its institutions.
The techocentric concern of governments: as was demonstrated in Meiji Japan and Kuomintang Taiwan, industrialization superseding the development of a civil society can result in either a nation of drones marching to destruction or to a despotism accomplishing material comfort for all, to allow the former despots to become mere politicians. We overlook the essential flaw in the design—because the design of our respective states conform to the clockwork mechanism views of polities, politics, and peoples in the era of the Enlightenment, with its underlying assumption that nations fully adept at engineering then become capable of transformations that improve, and do not wreck, the body politic.
On one hand in nations where the blueprints are beautiful but the executions is slovenly or where the design and execution really have zero tolerances for human error, the end result is the same. Millions taking to planes and making plans in a manner their ancestors long ago would have found similar, as they embarked on finding new homes in new lands, and by so doing became the mythical founders of our respective imagined or shall we say, arbitrary and accidental nation-states.
Singapore has wrestled with this problem, of technological proficiency versus the imagination—and yet the imagination, political and social creativity, with their necessary ferment, create not a new problem, but a new concern: that imagination and initiative are antithetical to the orderly industrialization so craved and sought as a measure of national success and stability. The Philippines, on the other hand, sees its evolution in devolution, in ignoring the grandeur of even imagining a nation-state, but instead, adoring the domestic, the local, even the feudal: autonomy under caudillo democracy.
However in the end it is the legalism and legalities of nationhood, the bureaucratic trappings of nationality, that are inescapable: passport, identity card, they are what we are born to, and what, if necessary, we must exchange, but which we cannot escape producing, whether in East or West. The documents of colonial control, refashioned, redesigned, but ubiquitous: they continue to circumscribe what for all of us, are our national identities and the tangible signs of that identity.
Ill try to give a synopsis of the discussion that followed, to the best of my recollection, in my next entry.