Nationalist sentiment in South East Asia: an example of where Hardt-Negri theories of Empire can go wrong

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Fri Aug 22 15:47:18 MDT 2003

A new tide of nationalism: Asian crisis bred strategy for resilience,

Special to The Japan Times

SINGAPORE -- Leaders in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have become
increasingly vocal in calling for more independent policies and outlook in
Southeast Asia, especially in the context of post-American military
intervention in Iraq.

In a way, the increasingly tense political and security situation in the
region today can be viewed within this context of uncertainties and mounting
nationalism. Such a climate is highlighted by the recent, short-lived
military mutiny in central Manila against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo;
the political standoff in Myanmar between the military junta and opposition
leader Aung San Suu Kyi; and the fluid political situation in Cambodia,
following "inconclusive" election results, which could impede the formation
of a stable government. The rise of Southeast Asian nationalism could
however be traced back to the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, when
countries in the region realized their vulnerability in the face of
globalization and liberalization, the terms of which some consider are being
"forced on" to them by the West. (...)

As nationalism rose from the ashes of the crisis, profound consequences and
effects are still being felt in a country like Indonesia. But even in
Thailand, the rise of "populist" economic nationalism, as embodied by Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's rise to power, could be dated back to the
financial crisis, too. (...) Even former Thai Foreign Minister Surin
Pitsuwan (a Democrat, who is definitely not in sync with Thaksin and his
"populist" policies) has frequently preached a message of national and
regional resilience.  Pitsuwan has argued that one of the reasons why
Southeast Asian nations succumbed so easily to the Asian crisis was that the
region's economies depended solely on the West for export markets,
technology, ideas and expatriate expertise. He has incessantly called for
more "local content," so as to build up national and regional resilience
against future crises. This argument is undoubtedly growing in strength, as
other regional leaders are also pitching in to advocate greater Asian

For example, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has called for an ASEAN
Economic Community, while former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung
advocated an East Asian Economic Community, based on the present loose
"ASEAN Plus 3" grouping (comprising the 10 ASEAN members, plus China, Japan
and South Korea). With the support of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad of
Malaysia, the First East Asian Congress was held in Kuala Lumpur in early
August to reaffirm the region's will to create an effective regional
grouping of "sustainable cooperation and development."

Similarly, Indonesia is today seized by a wave of nationalism, especially
during the recent American-led military intervention in Iraq, which was
opposed by the majority of Indonesians and thus championed against the U.S.
by Indonesian leaders. Indonesia's unfortunate "brush" with the IMF has left
deep scars of humiliation and suffering, and misgivings against the IMF
remain strong. (...) The debate is thus more a political than an economic
one, as nationalism rises in the relatively economically buoyant Indonesia
of today. In fact, the Indonesian equity market has risen some 36 percent in
U.S. dollar terms since the beginning of the year. Indonesia's rupiah
remains stable and strong at a level (relative to the U.S. dollar) never
seen since the Asian crisis -- all this despite bomb blasts in Jakarta, one
of the more recent attacks being in the Parliament complex itself. The
rupiah and Jakarta's stock market have even managed to absorb the shock from
last week's bombing at the JW Marriott Hotel, reflecting the markets'
confidence in the economy.

'Colonial agenda'

But the clearest case of rising nationalism is probably in Malaysia, during
the twilight months of Mahathir's premiership. The prime minister has been a
vocal critic of the West and its "colonial agenda," especially during the
U.S.-led intervention in Iraq.
At the June General Assembly of UMNO (the principal Malay political party in
the governmental coalition), Mahathir publicly criticized bangsa europa'
(European nations, probably referring more to the U.S., Britain and
Australia than Europe itself) for their "colonial instincts to dominate
Muslim countries." The outgoing prime minister had also used his
chairmanship of the Organization of Islamic Conference to chastise
Washington for its anti-Muslim and anti-Arab stance at recent Islamic
meetings in Kuala Lumpur.

Never a fan of the IMF and a critical opponent of "unequal globalization"
for developing nations, Mahathir and Malaysia have been in the forefront of
resisting the capitalistic West. Although his rhetorical style is powerful
and jarring, Malaysia has in fact pragmatically maintained its significant
Western commercial and investments links. However, it is also a fact that in
recent economic discourses, the Mahathir administration appears to have
become more inward-looking, as he emphasized the strategic importance of
domestic demand, consumption and local investments. In this regard, the
Malaysian ringgit is not due to be depegged from the U.S. dollar, as it is
perceived as a nationalistic measure undertaken against the advice of the
IMF then. For political reasons, the peg would be maintained as a direct
snub to the IMF and the West. Significantly, like Indonesia, Malaysia has
also decided to buy Russian Sukhois warplanes and arms in a move toward
"military diversification," a departure from its traditional U.S. and
Western defense procurements.

Southeast Asian nationalism is clearly making big strides in at least those
three countries, as they defy the U.S., the West and their policies, though
for three different sets of economic or political reasons. This reflects, in
a larger context, the developments in East Asia, a region that is becoming
conscious of its own regional identity and imperatives as well.

Dr. Eric Teo Chu Cheow, a business consultant and strategist based in
Singapore, is also council secretary of the Singapore Institute of
International Affairs (SIIA) and resource panel member of the Singapore
Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs.

The Japan Times: Aug. 15, 2003
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