Imaginary lines: the borders of Southeast Asia and the Nusantara

As I write, a stand-off has been ongoing in East Malaysia for almost a month: the Sultan of Sulu, who in reality is a private Filipino citizen with no sovereignty in his own right, ordered his paramilitary forces to press his historic claim to the territory of Sabah, which has been a state of Malaysia since 1963. Already dozens have died in the conflict. The conflict is a sad reminder of the generally arbitrary and somewhat accidental nature of many borders: it’s purely an accident of history that the main territory of Sulu passed to the Philippines instead of Malaysia, and that its hereditary Sultan is today a Filipino instead of a Malaysian.

Farish Noor, a respected Malaysian scholar who currently teaches in Singapore, recently authored an excellent piece on the subject. Even if you are otherwise completely uninterested in the region, I think it makes for fascinating reading. Farish is by training a historian, and he does a fantastic job of illustrating how the modern nation-state maps rather awkwardly to the way people historically have led their lives, and even awkwardly to the way people live today. A snippet:

Sabahans have never had a problem with other communities settling there, and that is why we still see large numbers of Suluks, Bajaos, Malays and Chinese across the state, settling into mixed families or into smaller settlements. Furthermore Sabahans are attuned to the reality of living in a fluid archipelago, which is why its coastal settlements have always been transit points where people from abroad come in and out with ease.

Just before the Lahad Datu incident I was informed that a large number of Suluks had arrived for a wedding, and they came in without passports and visas, and left peacefully afterwards.

It has been like that in Sabah since my childhood. But my fear is that culture of openness and fluidity came to an untimely and graceless end when some of the followers of the Sultan of Sulu landed with guns and rocket-launchers.

Historian Benedict Anderson chose Indonesia as the classic example of an “imagined community” for a reason: most Southeast Asian states have no real reason to follow the boundaries they do today. The Nusantara (the Malay name for the Malay archipelago, which today maps more or less to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Timor Leste, and possibly some other states/territories I’ve neglected to name) has historically been, as Farish says, “a fluid space.” The nation-state is an extremely blunt instrument that maps poorly to the multitude of identities — many of which are blended and melded in the same person or household — forming the cultural patchwork of Southeast Asia. The divisions on this map below map more to the arbitrary carving up of the Nusantara by colonial powers in the 19th century than they do to any meaningful differences between their peoples, then or now:


Does this mean we should abolish the nation-state? Work towards no borders, instead of open borders? Not necessarily so, and again Farish is incredibly insightful on this point — so insightful that it’s difficult not to quote him almost in full:

Gone are the days when a Malaysian, Filipino or Singaporean would be born in his country, study in the same country, work and die in the same country. In the near future, we may well live to see the birth of the first ASEAN [Southeast Asian equivalent of the European Union] generation who are born in one country, study in another, work in another and die in another, all the while feeling that he or she is still at home, in Southeast Asia.

But for this to happen, we cannot bypass the nation-state entirely; for we need the nation-state in order to transcend the nation-state. We need the nation-state to evolve where it may one day accept the reality that its citizens have multiple origins, multiple destinies, multiple and combined loyalties.

We need to work towards an ASEAN future where our governments may come to accept our complex, confounding hyphenated identities as something normal, and not an anomaly; when someone who is Javanese-Dutch-Indian-Arab like me can claim to come from Indonesia, be born in Malaysia, work in Singapore and love the Philippines.

Ironically, this is the impasse we are at today: To revive our collective memory of a shared Southeast Asian past, we need to work with and through the nation-state as the dominant paradigm that governs international relations.

Like Farish, I see no necessity for the abolition of the nation-state. The nation-state is a tool of governance; it is not a suicide pact. Where the nation-state furthers our lives by protecting us from harm and pursuing the common interest, all is well. But we should not ramshackle the nation to the state and the state to the nation.

I am the global version of Farish’s ASEAN citizen: I am of Chinese-Filipino descent, born in Japan, raised in Singapore and Malaysia, studied in the US and the UK, and now working in the US. I have multiple affiliations, loyalties, identities. These are just as arbitrary as the accidents of fate that determine which sports team you root for, and yet no less meaningful. We have learned to live and let live in our sporting affiliations (for the most part, the occasional European football or Canadian hockey riot notwithstanding), recognising their arbitariness but reveling in their significance. We can do the same with the nation-state and its borders.

Borders serve a purpose: they delineate the laws and institutions which govern a territory. To the extent that our legal institutions need to track comings and goings of people, just as they do with goods or services, they can erect border checkpoints and controls. To the extent that they need to maintain order and forestall invasion, they can forcibly keep people out at these checkpoints. But that is all. We need not make a fetish out of these borders: they are significant but arbitrary boundary markers. There is no reason beyond prejudice to arbitrarily keep some people out, and arbitrarily let others in. When we keep people from seeking gainful employment, when we keep friends and families apart, we need a good reason to do so.

The nation-state once was an instrument for oppression: initially oppression of domestic subjects by the sovereign, later the oppression of foreigners in distant lands. Over time, we have discarded the oppressive aspects of the nation-state, and embraced the state’s furtherance where it seems beneficial. And so as Farish says, the clarion call for open borders is not to abolish the nation-state: it is to take the nation-state toward the next step in its evolution.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.