As nationalism rises, what holds Asian countries together?

31 August 2019 / Karim Raslan

What is a nation?

If it’s just a random grouping of people – what brings and then keeps them together?

Is it a shared history, religion, geography, culture or language? Can the reasons be merely economic: “Hey, we’re all making money, so why not “hang” together?”

Well, for much of Asia, August (and I’m not too sure why) is THE month for flag-waving, patriotic songs and emotive nationalist videos. And please, we don’t need to listen to Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the Malaysian Cabinet singing (poorly). All we want is for them to focus on the economy.

Countries as varied as Singapore, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia and even Vietnam (theirs is actually on 2 September, but it’s close enough) celebrate their National Days in August.

The celebrations sometimes court controversy: Malaysians remain undecided on their nation’s “birthday.” Is it Merdeka Day on 31 August or Malaysia Day on 16 September?

Anyway, back in the 1990s and 2000s, we were all beginning to think – thanks to Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman – that nation-states were going to be an anachronism.

Globalisation, free trade and open borders were going to undermine national identities and meld them into a seamless, borderless world blessed with liberal democracy and capitalism.

Ahem...we all know how that went.

Nation-states have fought back. They are in rude health - thanks in part to Mr Trump - everywhere. And yet, they remain fragile, artificial constructs. The late Benedict Anderson with customary flair, described them as “imagined communities”.

They were, after all, a relatively new development. “State” and “nation” have been so conflated that the two are now considered one and the same.

Almost everyone resides in one of 186 nation-states that exist. And as nation-states have strengthened, life for those who are excluded (such as Myanmar’s Rohingya) has become infinitely more terrible, because without citizenship one can have little or no access to education, jobs, property or banking.

Colonialism wrought havoc on Africa – leading to the birth of countless, weak nation-states. We in Asia have arguably escaped the worst that recent history could throw at us.

Still, one of the best ways of assessing a nation’s success or failure is how it treats its minorities.

Nations need to possess a relatively inclusive, overarching identity – a set of ideas that can make anyone feel they belong. How else can we plan for the future, marry, have children and build their lives?

However, robust nation-states aren’t always nice places to live in if you’re a minority.

Narendra Modi’s India has chosen an aggressively majoritarian path: asserting Hindu rights and identity above all else. With the predominantly Muslim state of Kashmir under a lockdown and countless public lynchings of Muslims, the republic’s reputation as a tolerant, secular polity has been tossed away.


Nation-states have fought back. They are in rude health - thanks in part to Mr Trump - everywhere. And yet, they remain fragile, artificial constructs. The late Benedict Anderson with customary flair, described them as “imagined communities”.

India will also mark 31 August 2019 by publishing the final draft of its National Register of Citizens. The move, allegedly to verify who belongs and who doesn’t, could potentially leave millions of Muslims in the north-eastern state of Assam, on the border with Bangladesh, stateless.

While Thailand’s polity is supremely Thai and Buddhist, the King’s defining role has long helped bind the minorities to the centre, or at least, the Chakri dynasty. This was certainly true of King Bhumibol Adulyadej – but will his successor Vajiralongkorn command the same reverence?

Malaysia, in contrast, allows its minorities to retain their cultural autonomy while privileging the norms of and providing affirmative action to the majority Malay Muslim community.

That, however, has not been able to break down the walls of suspicion between them. Everything—from education to business—seems to be politicised and racialised, in a race to the bottom.

The Vietnamese national identity has been heavily coloured by its struggles against Chinese, French and American domination. It’s what defines them, drives them to excel. In effect, being Vietnamese means fighting and (lately) working to stay free.

Indonesia, despite being the largest Muslim country in the world, does not tie its national identity to religion – but rather, to the nation-building project Sukarno and his colleagues embarked upon in 1945.

But there are nuances: the socio-economic and cultural divide between North and South persists in Vietnam. Indonesia under the New Order suppressed both Chinese-Indonesian and regional identities.

Today, Indonesia must deal with the implications of the 2019 Presidential Elections, which saw President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) win re-election thanks largely to Javanese and non-Muslim voters whilst losing ground elsewhere, especially in Sumatra. Moreover, rage is mounting in Papua and West Papua over alleged incidents of racism against the largely Melanesian provinces’ students.

Indeed, Indonesians and their leaders have had to constantly work to live up to their pluralistic state ideology of Pancasila and “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (“Unity of Diversity”) motto.

To be fair, Jokowi’s recent decision to shift Indonesia’s capital to Kalimantan—where only 6% of the republic’s population lives—highlights a conscious decision to reject majoritarianism.

It recalls Indonesia’s early nationalists selecting a dialect of Malay that eventually became Bahasa Indonesia to unite their diverse, fledging nation, a trading lingua franca that, unlike Javanese, everyone could “own.”

Will the current capital relocation similarly pay off given that it must be sustained by administrations long after Jokowi has left office? Only time will tell.

So, with some notable exceptions, things don’t seem very good for Asia’s minorities.

But then again, the failure of the global, liberal elite to stem the tide of populist demagogues powered by fake news means that this trend isn’t limited to our continent.

That’s where we find ourselves in 2019, even as our nations celebrate their respective birthdays. The key point to remember is that nation-making is a constant process, from generation to generation, as we seek to reinvent what it means to belong to our respective nations.