Tag Archives: nationalism

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.

It Can’t All Be About (the) U.S.

In February, National Public Radio aired a segment, part of its Planet Money series, in which it asked three immigration experts what sort of immigration system they would have if they “controlled the borders.” To NPR’s credit, one of the experts was the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh (a contributor to the Open Borders site). He proposed letting all immigrants in, except for suspected terrorists, criminals, and those with serious communicable diseases. He noted that this policy would benefit the economy and would mean that people wouldn’t have to put themselves at risk crossing the border.

Not surprisingly, the other two experts chosen by NPR did not propose open borders. One expert was the economist Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, who has researched the economic impact of immigration on the U.S. and found it to be mostly positive. His ideal immigration system would be one in which employers would bid for permits allowing them to employ individual foreign workers, including low-skilled workers. The other expert was Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (we’ve critiqued Baker before). He would admit immigrants with families in the U.S. and would provide visas to highly skilled individuals who, in the words of NPR’s host, “would benefit our economy the most.” Mr. Baker said he “would like to make sure that you had a lot of immigrants at the high end” but is “less concerned about farm workers.”

The proposals from Mr. Peri and Mr. Baker seem designed to maximally benefit the U.S. and apparently make the interests of immigrants who are excluded from their systems irrelevant. Formulating such an immigration policy probably makes sense to many Americans. After all, some may think, the government should look out first and foremost for the interests of its citizens. Joseph Carens of the University of Toronto articulates this view: “The power to admit or exclude aliens is inherent in sovereignty and essential for any political community. Every state has the legal and moral right to exercise that power in pursuit of its own national interest…”

Mr. Carens suggests, however, that this nationalist position doesn’t justify immigration restrictions. He explains that “When the stakes are high (e.g., legal proceedings) we normally create institutional rules to try to prevent people from being able to favor their friends and relatives. In other words, our notion of justice constrain the extent and ways in which we think it is acceptable for us to favor family members… even if we are morally entitled to favor compatriots in some ways, it is not self evident that we are entitled to favor them by excluding potential immigrants. Perhaps that form of preferential treatment goes too far.” Restricting immigration in effect would be nepotism writ large, an attempt to favor those identified as being more closely connected to us by giving them access to the U.S. labor market and denying access to those deemed less connected.

Bryan Caplan of George Mason University (who has also guest blogged for Open Borders) echoes Mr. Carens in his critique of the analogy between the nation and a family: “…almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism.  Almost everyone knows that ‘It would help my son’ is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone’s arm, or steal.  Indeed, almost everyone knows that ‘It would help my son’ is not a good reason for even petty offenses – like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son’s a contestant.” Despite this, Mr. Caplan points out that at the national level citizens tend to lose this sense of morality and use nationalism “as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups.” Nationalism leads to immoral treatment, such as interfering with the right to immigrate.  The logic of Mr. Carens and Mr. Caplan discredits nationalist arguments around the world supporting immigration restrictions, not just those in the American context.

Given Planet Money’s focus on economics, the underlying question posed to the three experts about their preferred immigration regime may really have been: “From a purely economic standpoint, which immigration policy do you believe would most benefit current American citizens?” (Even within these parameters, the proposals of Mr. Peri and Mr. Baker are questionable; open borders, as Mr. Nowrasteh suggests, may have the most beneficial economic impact on the U.S.) Actual policymaking, however, should not exclude moral concerns. NPR should air another segment asking guests, “What would be a moral immigration policy?” That would help Americans think more profoundly about immigration policy.