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Nation, Community, and Identity in Southeast Asia

Pingtjin Thum
University of Oxford

Kevin Fogg
University of Oxford

Panel Abstract

In the wake of decolonisation, the nation-states of Southeast Asia sought to justify their post-colonial boundaries and forge coherent nations out of diverse and disparate peoples. The creation of national identities has been a hotly disputed process, contested by different nationalist visions and challenged by older, preexisting forms of transnational or subnational identity. This contest takes many different and varied forms, including some unique to Southeast Asian contexts. It has also sparked a lively and growing debate on identity in its numerous and myriad forms. This panel will deconstruct different conceptions of identity in Southeast Asia, examining economic, moral, and cultural forms of identity production and their relationship to the state and the nation.

The contested nature of identity continues to unsettle Southeast Asia today, providing major impetus for discrimination, segregation, repression, and instability. These papers provide insight into the myriad and complicated ways in which identities are formed and interact in Southeast Asia.


Paper 1:  Failed Citizens: Gambling and Nation-building in Singapore, 1950-80

Lee Kah-Wee
National University of Singapore

Nation-building processes in Southeast Asia have produced a dramatic record of losers – from suppressed political movements to clan associations to indigenous tribes. Yet, what happens when the enemies of the new state are the citizens themselves? I consider the vexing case of gambling in Singapore between the 1950s and 80s, when this form of popular illegality was strenuously stigmatized by the government as a form of cultural weakness and foreign vice.

I present two scenes into this historical moment. First, I rebuild the street economy of gambling in the Chinatown district through the oral histories of former residents of this area. Their narratives reveal how gambling was a commonplace activity that permeated every form of commercial transaction as well as a vibrant business that fed many petty traders and workers in the neighborhood.  Second, I conduct a visual analysis of the state-sponsored legalized lottery set up in 1965. The draw ceremony and physical design of the lottery booths evince the attempt by the state to resolve the contradiction between stigmatization and legalization. These two scenes suggest that a veiled space of exception was carved within the body politic of the nation-state for those who failed to live up to the ideal of modern citizenship.


Paper 2: Writing Identity on the Wall: the Geração Foun, Street Art and National Identity Construction in Timor-Leste

Catherine Arthur
Queen’s University, Belfast

Since the independence of Timor-Leste was regained in 2002, the process of nation-building and national identity formation is on-going in the face of significant challenges. Among the issues that pose a potential threat to national unity is the generational divide that stems from the differing cultural-linguistic heritages left by the former Portuguese and Indonesian occupations. The younger generation of Timorese born after the 1975 invasion has been largely excluded from the nation-building project as a result of their educational and cultural associations with Indonesia. In contrast, the older generation which has led the country in the post-independence years has privileged its own Lusophone cultural-linguistic heritage in the new state. Street art and graffiti are primary media of expression for the young Timorese, providing a platform for political expression that they would otherwise not have and allowing insight into their hopes for the future. In this paper, I analyse language use and construction in contemporary street art as reflective of the younger generation’s views on national unity and peace in a post-conflict society. The utilization of language in street art is deliberate and an integral part of the self-identification and representation of the young generation to not only East Timorese society, but to the international community. Drawing from existing research about the Geração Foun, as well as theory on street art and graffiti from around the world, I propose an interdisciplinary approach to a study of young people in national identity construction in Timor-Leste.


Paper 3: Malaysian MMORPG communities reinforcing Malaysian identities

Benjamin Loh
Ohio University

Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, otherwise known as MMORPGs, are a new wave of online games that are designed to connect thousands of players together from around the world, allowing them to play and communicate with each other. Considering the international nature of these games and how most of them are hosted in Western countries, the communities within tend to be Western by nature as they primarily use English and follow Western cultural norms. Despite that, there are players from small countries that band together in these online spaces and create their own local communities within them. Malaysian players are one such group. Within Malaysia today, there exists a racial tension among its citizens as there is a lack of racial integration as the society reflects pluralism. However, these prejudices are shed by these player communities which recognize Malaysians for who they are and not their race. This paper reveals this fact based on interviews with local Malaysian players  who are involved with Malaysian player communities. The findings show that these communities are extending Malaysian culture in an international environment and strengthen a sense of Malaysian identity amongst its players.


Paper 4: Cultural Logic and Temuan Identity: Negotiating indigeneity in postcolonial Malaysia

Chih-Hui Liang
Academia Sinica, Taiwan

This paper presents a critical rethinking of indigeneity and cultural logic approaches to identity formation and maintenance of the Temuan society. Among the indigenous peoples of Malay Peninsula (generally referred to as Orang Asli), the Temuan are a proto-Malays subgroup speaking Austronesia languages. The Orang Asli of the Malay Peninsula, even though they lived in a marginal area, they were not always isolated. Actually, they have a long history of interaction and exchange with Malay and other ethnic groups migrating to the Peninsula. Temuan Society is a tightly-knit held together by a network of kinship relations organized along the principles of Adat. It is this compact system of hierarchical relations that unites and strengthens the Temuan as a people, reinforcing their social identity and thus following them to maintain and carry on their own unique traditions. In other words, the practice of cultural logic acts a role to maintain ethnic distinctiveness and identity.