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Panel 19. National/Transnational Identity and the Southeast Asian State

Chair: Claudia Merli (Durham University)

Southeast Asia’s nation-states cut across geographical, religious, ethnic, and cultural communities, but present the conceit that they are formed of unique civic communities with essentialist characteristics that bind its citizens into one political community. This panel addresses the tension inherent in the construction of civic identity with the diasporic, economic, and religious forces that overlap and intersect with modern Southeast Asia. These forces form overlapping spheres and which interact and influence each other in many complex, non-obvious, and diverse ways. The panel looks at the consequences of the creation of these identities and their implications for both the citizens and states of modern Southeast Asia.

Paper 1: Between Diaspora and the Nation-State: Transnational Unity and Fragmentation among Hmong in Laos and the United States

Sangmi Lee (University of Oxford)

Through a comparative ethnographic study of two Hmong diasporic communities in Laos and the United States, my research examines how Hmong in the diaspora maintain their social cohesion and collective ethnic consciousness across national borders despite the uncertainty about the location of their ethnic homeland and their loss of ancestral connections to it. At the same time, the Hmong in the diaspora also experience social fragmentation based on their affiliations with the separate nation-states in which they reside. By discussing the remarkable national and social differences in each local context, my research analyzes how Hmong people have come to adapt to each society as their alternative homeland to a certain extent. While this leads to the fragmentation of a single, diasporic ethnicity, I argue that the Hmong diaspora will still persist as a community because the Hmong in both countries maintain strong transnational affiliations with each other across national borders. I will therefore provide a transnational perspective to the understanding of the internal dynamics of community and identity formation among diasporic ethnic minorities.

Paper 2: A curious trajectory of inter-race relations: the transformation of cosmopolitan Malay port polities into the multiethnic divisions of modern Malaysia

Tomáš Petrů (Metropolitan University Prague)

It is a commonplace to state that, thanks to their strategic position along the major trade routes, the coasts and ports of Southeast Asia have for millennia been exposed to waves of intense influx of foreign cultures, religions, philosophical conceptions and languages. This is actually even truer about the “heart” of the region – the Malay peninsula and the adjacent areas of Sumatra across the vital Malacca strait – arguably the western portion of the Malay world, which thus became one of the cultural and ethnolinguistic crossroads of the Eastern hemisphere. This development logically gave rise to highly cosmopolitan port polities (harbor principalities) such as Melaka, Patani or Kutaraja (Aceh), where seafarers of dozens of nationalities would gather to exchange goods and ideas.  Many of them settled temporarily or permanently, intermarrying with local women, thus adding to the ethno-linguistic mosaic and creating new, hybrid (crossbred) identities.

In accordance with this development, one of the major countries of the Malay world, Malaysia, thus unsurprisingly boasts a highly multiethnic society, which is frequently compared to rojak (a kind of spicy salad), though the current mixture is rather a product of the colonial-state sponsored migrations than the spontaneous ones at the ´age of commerce´. The rojak cliché of Malaysian multiethnicity usually operates with the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians as the main pillars of the Malaysian population, necessarily sprinkled on with the marginal communities of orang asli and indigenous Austronesian ethnic groups of Sabah and Sarawak, all living in complete harmony. Such is the official, governmental version that the visitor sees in every tourist brochure. The reality is, however, much different – i.e. the rojak is much spicier, for the government, dominated by the ethnic Malays, tends to (intentionally) overlook hybrid or even plural identities of many Malaysia´s inhabitants such as peranakan Chinese, peranakan Indians, Melaka kristang and many more. It is a well-known fact that this division is a sinister legacy of the British colonial administrators who, during a decade or two, virtually annihilated 500 years of cultural cross-fertilization, as they did not approve of individuals having plural identities (Noor 2009, also see Hirschman 1987). This product of social engineering was taken over virtually unchanged by the founding fathers of Malaya and Malaysia respectively, as it clearly favors the Malays. Sadly, it also adds to the rather uncooperative mode among the communities and increases mutual tensions.

The aim of this paper is therefore twofold: first, to analyze the transformation of cosmopolitan harbor principalities into a multiethnic (meaning: racially divided) Malaysia; secondly, to trace and analyze the evolution of another social and cultural construct called bangsa Melayu (as opposed tobangsa Malaysia), which does not include only Malays per se, but also descendants of the Javanese, the Minangkabau, the Batak, the Bugis and other peoples of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, and the reasons behind it.

Paper 3: Finding its own identity in the era of globalization: The process of indigenization of religions in Central Vietnamese fishing communities

Thanh Nguyen  (INALCO)

Despite of borders, human beings used to travel and established themselves everywhere they can find good fortune: peace, good land and food. Frontiers are administrating matters. In an era of porous borders and globalization how do individuals negotiate a sense of identity and belonging? Can we confirm that spiritual practices and religious observance intertwine with nation-building? Central of Vietnam is a fragmented microcosm of the large cultural areas, following the main lines of communication. As this area is in the crossroads of three main Empirii, the Chinese, Indian and Archipelago worlds, the culture we found here is marked by the influence of these 3.

The concept of identity in this part of Asia is an extension of the mind and cultural sensibility of each individual. Many of those men are involved in religious practices, ancestor worship, superstition and other similar things. The march toward progress used to carry with it obvious risks of standardization and cultural hegemony but with the Central Vietnamese fishing communities and their beliefs the globalization reach its limits. Their identity is a result of combination of 3 cultures, strongly rooted in a specific area. This identity cannot simply be swept aside. This paper suggests that by the process of indigenization, local conceptions and local beliefs can sometimes face the pressure of globalization.

Paper 4: Authenticity in the Relative and Negative: National identity and ‘Foreign Talents’ in Singapore

Peidong Yang (University of Oxford)

Singapore’s national identity has always been a problematic construct due to the postcolonial island-nation’s unique historical and socio-political circumstances. In particular, it is observed that Singapore’s constitutive fluidity/hybridity and self-reinventiveness constantly undermine the efforts to construct an ‘authentic’ Singaporean identity in the essentialist and positive manner. In more recent times, the injection of the so-called ‘foreign talents’ into Singapore’s ethnoscapes sets off further dynamics onto this terrain. Using the cases of two types of ‘foreign talents’ that are particularly visible and controversial in the country’s collective consciousness and civic discourse, namely, the foreign sports talents and the scholarship-holding foreign students, this paper illustrates the ways in which the authenticity of these ‘foreign talents’ becomes a key site of contestation, where local identity assertions take place in a relative and negative manner. It is argued that the local responses of suspicion and, occasionally, hostility, towards the ‘foreign talents’ may be regarded as continuous with Singapore’s ‘politics of authenticity’ and her troubled ongoing project of questing some senses of authentic nationhood.